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Mixed messages come forth on nuclear power

Ever since the UK Government announced plans to build a new nuclear power station in England, environmental campaigners have been watching Scottish ministers for any indication their commitment to renewables over nuclear power could be wavering.

There is no sign of that happening but news that hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money are to be spent helping Scottish companies become involved in the nuclear industry is somewhat inconsistent with that nuclear-sceptic message.

The Scottish Government, from the First Minister down, has been robust in rejecting nuclear power as a way to meet Scotland's future energy needs. The First Minister called it a busted flush and his energy minister, Fergus Ewing, called support for the power source misguided, stressing that investment should instead be funnelled into renewables.

Whether renewables alone can reliably meet Scotland's medium-term electricity needs, after the decommissioning of existing nuclear power and thermal plants, is subject to debate but the Scottish Government has staked out its position clearly. What, then, should observers make of this new investment, through Scottish Enterprise, to help companies become involved in the nuclear industry?

On the face of it, there is no cause to suspect a serious change of heart at St Andrew's House. If Scottish Enterprise's predictions are correct, the majority of activity being promoted to Scottish firms would be in decommissioning work, something in which Scots have significant expertise. Nearly 10 years ago, the former environment minister, Ross Finnie, urged our universities to make efforts to establish Scotland as the international home of nuclear decommissioning expertise. The decommissioning of Dounreay and other sites, created an opportunity; the technological skills involved could be marketed internationally. This is what Scottish Enterprise appears to want to do.

What chimes less well with Scottish Government rhetoric is talk of new nuclear power plants. A document given to interested firms by Scottish Enterprise states that there is "considerable commitment to nuclear new-build" in the UK and overseas.

There is certainly no sign that the Scottish Government intends to build a new nuclear plant in Scotland, after years of stating its implacable opposition to the idea but there is an obvious dissonance between the Government's opposition to building such plants at home, while apparently actively encouraging firms to be involved in opportunities relating to building them in other countries.

The Scottish Government has said itself that spending on nuclear energy risked having a "significant adverse impact" on research and development of clean energy alternatives. If that holds good in Scotland, then it surely applies equally overseas.

Taxpayers' money should certainly be used to help businesses secure work in decommissioning but Scottish ministers risk the charge of hypocrisy for backing a project encouraging firms to get involved in nuclear new-builds outside these borders.

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