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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 March 2006, 17:03 GMT
Who should take nuclear decision?
By Brian Taylor
BBC Scotland political editor

Pylons
A full-scale review of future energy generation is under way
Who should decide? Who should have the final say on whether Scotland sanctions a new generation of nuclear power stations?

The obvious answer? The people. But how will that popular will be expressed, under devolved democracy?

Through the UK Parliament at Westminster? Or the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood?

When Donald Dewar and his team were

steering the content of the devolution White Paper past sceptical Westminster Cabinet colleagues, they frequently confronted the issue of shared power or unintended consequences.

You'll remember that devolution was designed to work by reserving a designated set of powers to Westminster - the broad economy, foreign affairs, defence and the rest - before boldly stating that anything not thus reserved was, by definition, devolved.

The prime minister has made clear, vigorously and repeatedly, that he believes this review must pay close attention to new nuclear generation as a serious option

But the Westminster Cabinet had to face the question of what happened when those reserved and devolved powers clashed.

There was prolonged discussion, for example, over the potential for discord in promoting industrial development. Who had the final say?

Behind the scenes, there have been tensions over who speaks for Scottish interests in the European Union. Foreign affairs, including Europe, are reserved to Westminster.

Yet it is acknowledged in the White Paper that Scottish ministers will expect to have a voice in Brussels, albeit within the common UK policy position.

It is a scrupulous fudge which, mostly, can be made to work. So far.

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The energy debate - and especially the nuclear question - presents a different challenge. That is because it does not appear, presently, that a common UK position is credible or possible.

The UK Government has instigated an energy review.

The prime minister has made clear, vigorously and repeatedly, that he believes this review must pay close attention to new nuclear generation as a serious option. Energy is reserved to Westminster as a policy issue. The PM will have his way. QED.

Except. Planning powers are devolved to Holyrood. (Strictly, they are exercised by local government but, over such a big issue, it would be Scottish Executive ministers who would decide.)

Dounreay
The issue of nuclear waste still has to be decided

So the UK Government can say: we endorse nuclear power and the building of a new generation of atomic plants.

But the Scottish Executive can say: build your new plants, by all means, but not in Scotland. We will refuse.

Within the executive, of course, it is the Liberal Democrats who are most vigorous in opposing nuclear generation.

The formal executive position is that there will be no new plants in Scotland unless and until the issue of waste disposal is resolved.

Here the parties divide. The LibDems do not believe the waste question will be resolved.

They believe that Scotland should, in effect, make life difficult for herself by turning down the "easy option" of new nuclear.

Many Labour MSPs, including influential ministers, do not believe that renewables, while worthy, can fill the gap

That, they say, would drive the pace on obliging Scotland to pursue renewables like wind, wave, tidal and solar.

Scotland, again they say, could be a world leader in renewables.

Many Labour MSPs, including influential ministers, do not believe that renewables, while worthy, can fill the gap.

They believe that Scotland will need new nuclear generation. Otherwise, they say we will be dependent on external supplies, including from potentially unreliable foreign countries.

The recent Scottish Labour conference voted to endorse new nuclear generation.

So our poll findings are intriguing.

Decision time

In Question Four, respondents were asked to choose who should have the "final say" on whether or not new nuclear power stations should be built in Scotland.

By a very substantial majority, they opted for the devolved Scottish Executive - ahead of the UK Government.

In total, 82% of respondents in our sample said the executive should decide. By contrast, just 13% wanted the decision taken by the UK Government.

That opinion was shared across the gender divide and throughout the age range.

Wind farm
Wind farms are becoming a more common sight

Not surprisingly, SNP voters were most inclined to favour the Edinburgh option while Conservative voters generated the lowest majority in favour of the executive.

But even Tory voters favoured Edinburgh by two-to-one. Everyone, it seems, wants this decision in the hands of the devolved administration.

Why? Well, some may simply feel that this is a matter for Scotland alone.

Some may suspect that the executive, given its current stance, would be inclined to be more quizzical about nuclear generation.

You'll recall that other indications from our poll suggested that Scots were instinctively sceptical about nuclear power.

Women in particular favoured that approach.

Scots might be convinced by nuclear if it could be shown that we would otherwise be dependent on potentially unreliable overseas supplies

And, in Question Four, it is women who are notably keen on giving that decision to the executive, perhaps in anticipation that their wider views on nuclear power will find more support there.

But arguably Question Five gives us a further clue.

Here, respondents were asked whom they trusted to tell the truth about the safety or otherwise of nuclear power.

Two thirds or 66% were inclined to believe official scientists.

Just behind that were academic experts, with 64% placing faith in them.

Next came the Scottish Executive, with 56% trust: lower admittedly than for the scientists but still a majority.

But look down the list. Environmental experts were trusted by 47%.

The UK Government was further back still, with 31% prepared to place their faith in the word from Whitehall and Westminster.

That is below one third of the sample and a full 25 points behind the trust placed in the executive over this issue.

Only energy companies, with 23%, had a lower ranking on this point.

The review continues. The debate continues.

And, as other findings indicate, Scots might be convinced by nuclear if it could be shown that we would otherwise be dependent on potentially unreliable overseas supplies.

But right now it would seem that Scots are intuitively sceptical about new nuclear generation - and not inclined to place their trust in the UK Government over the issue.


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