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Last Updated: Monday, 6 March 2006, 01:00 GMT
Weighing up future energy options
By Brian Taylor
BBC Scotland political editor

Turbines on the hills behind Hunterston nuclear power station
The key conclusion from our poll? Nuclear power - No thanks!

But look a little more closely and there may still be room for the nuclear lobby to gain ground in Scotland, depending entirely on how the debate develops.

As ever, context is crucial. The UK Government is currently undertaking a review of Britain's energy needs.

The prime minister has declared that he

believes that review must look at the prospect of building new nuclear capacity in the UK to replace ageing atomic power plants.

In Scotland, there is an added dimension. The coalition executive, particularly driven by its Liberal Democrat element, has said that it will not sanction a new generation of nuclear plants unless and until there is an acceptable solution to the issue of disposing of nuclear waste.

Which leaves a conundrum. Westminster is responsible for the UK's strategic energy needs. Hence the review.

But Holyrood has control over planning, determining where new installations, including nuclear plants, can be constructed. Hence the executive has clout.

To put it simply, the UK Government may well say: "We want new nuclear generation and we want Scotland to play a share in that."

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The Scottish Executive may say: "We hear your views but we will not allow a new nuclear plant to be built in Scotland."

However, things are rarely so simple - and this is a particularly complex strategic and political debate.

Do we need nuclear? Do the alternatives fill Britain's energy needs? Could Scotland's energy mix be different from that in England? Can Scotland say no to nuclear, regardless of the London view?

The issue is further complicated by the differing stances of the two parties in the Scottish coalition.

The Liberal Democrats are sceptical, if not hostile, towards new nuclear generation. They do not believe that the waste question has been settled.

Nuclear waste at Dounreay
Most were not keen on storing nuclear waste in Scotland

Further, they believe that Scotland should strengthen the drive for renewables instead.

Several Labour MSPs, including key ministers, believe that renewables will not fulfil Scotland's energy needs.

They believe there will be a gap - and that nuclear will be needed to fill that gap.

The Scottish Labour conference recently voted in favour of new nuclear generation.

Enter our poll. In Question One, people were asked to state their preference for meeting Scotland's future energy needs.

They were asked to rank various options - including nuclear, gas fired power stations, coal fired and renewables, such as wave, tidal, solar or wind power.

Renewables came top, attracting 52% of first mentions among our sample. Gas-fired power stations gained 21%; nuclear 15; and coal-fired generation 6%.

Men and women both placed renewables first - but women were particularly down on nuclear, ranking it more lowly than their male counterparts. Younger people tended to be more keen on renewables than their elders.

Scotland, it is argued, needs nuclear power and should prepare to cope with the consequences

Glance now at Question Seven: the issue of waste disposal which has so exercised the executive.

Perhaps no great surprise but our survey suggested that Scots are less than keen on storing or disposing of nuclear waste within these shores.

No surprise, I say. Who wants a nuclear dump? Well, those who argue that safe disposal is possible and a necessary corollary to the establishment of nuclear generation.

Scotland, it is argued, needs nuclear power and should prepare to cope with the consequences.

Our poll suggests that Scotland will need some convincing. Some 69% were strongly opposed to storage or disposal of waste in Scotland; with 11% tending to oppose; and 9% tending to support alongside just 5% who strongly supported such an option.

Turn to Question Two - and those who oppose nuclear power will find more succour still.

Respondents were asked if they would support or oppose nuclear power stations being built in Scotland.

The default position was opposition - with 35% of the sample strongly opposed to such a development; 17% tending to oppose; while 19% tended to support; and 14% strongly supported such construction. Again, female respondents were notably hostile.

Russian gas pipeline under construction
Imported energy from countries like Russia is now a factor

So why do I say there may be some wriggle room for the pro-nuclear lobby? Aren't the findings quite clear? Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.

Turn now to Question Three. Here respondents were asked whether they would support or oppose new nuclear power stations being built in Scotland "if they helped to avoid us being dependent on energy imported from overseas".

Again, think context. Anti-nuclear campaigners will say such a choice is bogus: that Scotland could develop sufficient renewable energy to prevent such dependence occurring.

But, politically, these decisions will be taken in an atmosphere created by Westminster and Downing Street.

Those who believe nuclear power is inevitable - arguably including the prime minister - are already stressing the consequences of avoiding such a choice of action.

It would appear that Scotland is intuitively sceptical about nuclear generation - and instinctively inclined towards renewables

They talk of the lights going out. They talk, in particular, of the hazards of being dependent, for example, on Russian gas, noting that the Russians attempted to cut supplies to the Ukraine.

Bogus or real, Scots will be confronted with precisely the dilemma set out in our question when we are invited to make up our collective mind on the future of energy generation in this country.

When asked Question Three about foreign supplies, opposition to new nuclear plants in Scotland declined. Indeed the default position was now to support such construction.

Thirty per cent of respondents were strongly in favour; with 24% tending to support; 12% tending to oppose; and 22% strongly opposed. Again, men were more inclined towards nuclear than women.

Which conjures up a fascinating prospect. It would appear that Scotland is intuitively sceptical about nuclear generation - and instinctively inclined towards renewables.

But could that standpoint be turned by a vigorous campaign pointing out the hazards - real or envisioned - from such an approach? Indeed, has such a campaign already begun, with the prime minister at the head?



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