While the UK Government wants to build new nuclear power stations, ministers in Scotland have set themselves firmly against the idea of constructing any facilities to replace the ageing reactors at Torness in Esat Lothian and Hunterston in Ayrshire.

At the latest reckoning these generated around 25% of the country’s power but they are living on borrowed time. Hunterston is due to close in 2016 while Torness will go dark in 2028.

The Scottish Government bases its opposition to building new nuclear plants in Scotland on a number of grounds. These were detailed in a submission to the UK energy review in October 2007 when Energy Minister Jim Mather said: “We completely reject the development of dangerous, unnecessary and costly new nuclear power stations in Scotland.”

Claiming that Scotland already produces more energy than it consumes, ministers said that the country’s geography meant that it could look forward to a bright and low carbon future. Lashed by wind and fringed by a long coastline, Scotland could produce huge amounts of renewable energy, meaning it could manage without the power currently generated by nuclear plants.

The Government said Scotland was estimated to have 60 Gigawatts of renewable energy resources – 10 times Scottish peak demand and the equivalent of three-quarters of the UK’s installed electricity generating capacity.

With no need to build new nuclear plants, Scotland could reduce its reliance on finite, imported uranium and limit the amount of waste that has to be transported around the country and stored out of the reach of terrorists.

Taxpayers would be spared the possibly punitive costs of building new nuclear plans.

By using money that would otherwise go to nuclear plants to invest in renewables, energy efficiency and carbon capture, Scotland could develop a world lead in technologies that will power the future.

What makes the Scottish Government’s continued opposition to nuclear newbuild especially significant is the fact that it appears to have the power to stop plants being built.

While energy policy is reserved to Westminster, any application to build a new nuclear power station in Scotland would require consent from Scottish ministers under Section 36 of the Electricity Act 1989.

So while the UK Government has proposed to build four plants none are currently in prospect north of the border.

The policy has faced a barrage of criticism from business leaders. This reached a crescendo in December when oil services tycoon Sir Ian Wood accused Scottish ministers of living in denial of the realities facing Scotland.

The critics appear to be united in a belief that with demand for power rising nuclear generation will have to form part of the mix in Scotland for years to come.

The recent spell of bitterly cold weather has heightened concern about the fact that the UK is becoming increasingly reliant on imports of gas, some from volatile areas. Much criticism of the Government’s policy is based on concern that, however exciting the prospect of a renewable energy revolution may be, it is by no means certain that one will be achieved in time to keep the lights on and factories working over the next 20 years.

Getting enough wind and wave farms on site depends on expected advances in generating technology being achieved. Investors will then have to provide billions of pounds to develop generating plants and associated storage and distribution infrastructure.

Plenty of things could go wrong.

“In our view the Scottish Government is placing far too much reliance on sources of energy that are not proven financially and commercially and have real problems with intermittency,” said Iain McMillan director of CBI Scotland.

“It is right that wind and other renewables should be used and we are very supportive of that, our issue is that they are relying too much on those renewables.”

McMillan said that if Scotland is going to meet its target of reducing carbon emissions, while securing reliable sources of power that can be produced at a price that is internationally competitive, nuclear has to be part of the mix.

“It is unfortunate that the Scottish Government continues to turn its back on the nuclear industry bearing in mind that it is of vital importance that our manufacturing engineering industry has a balanced, sustainable, secure and affordable energy supply for the future,” said Peter Hughes, chief executive of Scottish Engineering.

The Scottish Council for Development and Industry said its research showed that it was “highly likely” new base load capacity will be needed between 2020 and 2030 to prevent a generation shortfall. “As a proven, low carbon technology, nuclear generation could represent a viable option at that time,” said head of policy Gareth Williams.

Concerns about possible over-reliance on renewables are not limited to business.

“There’s an abundance of renewable energy about, that’s beside the point, it’s the cost of converting that into useful energy that matters,” said Colin McInnes, professor of engineering science at Strathclyde University.

McInnes said the efficiency of wind farms is seriously compromised by the fact that wind is erratic. To be sure of generating a certain amount of power developers would have to build a plant that was three times bigger than one whose output could be predicted.

Wind farms have a design life of 20 years compared with 60 for nuclear plants, which have a much smaller footprint.

Tidal flows may be less erratic but harnessing them will pose challenges in terms of storage.

McInnes noted that the United Arab Emirates recently chose to invest $20bn in getting South Korea to build four new nuclear plants. These will provide dependable baseload energy that the emirates can rely on while they try to develop solar facilties to make the most of their abundant sunshine. The Korean example shows that plants can be developed much more cheaply than opponents of nuclear power believe, said McInnes.

Take account of all the relevant factors and McInnes believes the unit costs of the electricity produced by new nuclear plants are likely to be lower than wind farms.

He is concerned that the effect of the Scottish Government’s policy will be that renewable energy will be used to displace nuclear plants rather than coal and gas plants that generate higher emissions.

CBI Scotland’s McMillan warns the costs of getting it wrong could be high for Scotland in the form of the loss of many high paid jobs associated with nuclear energy.

Many businesses would love to compete for the billions of pounds of work in construction and engineering contracts associated with new plants.

Noting that Scotland could end up importing power from nuclear plants in England to help keep its energy costs down in future, McMillan said a gamble on renewables could also pose an unexpected political risk for the SNP.

“That seems to be an extraordinary position for a secessionist government to put Scotland in.”