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Enjoy the moment

Comment

The 'overwhelming majority' of civil engineering professional will, I am sure, be very pleased to hear Trade Secretary Alistair Darling confirm government support for the construction of new nuclear power stations as the corner stone of the UK's energy policy for the next half century.

While I don't share the optimism or enthusiasm of this particular policy, I do take heart from the considerable emphasis given in the Energy White Paper to conservation and renewable generation.

As Darling said this week, we should not get overly caught up in the nuclear debate. And, sorry to be the bearer of bad news, this energy white paper does not signal the start of a nuclear revolution.

Accepted it was always a long shot to imagine that Tony Blair would turn his back on the pronuclear lobby, even I agree that our existing nuclear power fleet is vital to meet our current electricity needs.

The question is how, with what and when to replace these ageing power stations when they reach the end of their design lives.

The last point is crucial and the good news is that government has rightly opted to let the market decide how best to deliver light and power. The market has proved that it is highly capable of cost effectively meeting demand despite the obstacles of carbon trading and the renewables obligation.

The reality is that it will be highly unlikely that private energy companies will be in a hurry to shut down existing nuclear power plants too early or choose to decommission any nuclear assets until they absolutely have to.

It is understood that British Energy's facilities at Dungeness, Hunterston and Heysham have been given an extra 10 years of life. The idea of extending life will no doubt be rolled out across the et and in many cases extended beyond a single decade.

All of which puts the need to 'fill the energy gap' as Darling puts it in a whole new context.

In the real world we will still have 85% of existing nuclear capacity up and running in 2020 - not 20% as once thought.

The good news is that behind the nuclear headlines, the White Paper also contains measures that could actually reward energy companies for selling us less.

This is really important as it finally shifts the onus for conservation away from the consumer and onto the market. Coupled with a policy of eking the most from existing resources, basic economics could well buy us enough time to rethink our whole approach to heat and power demand and supply.

It is appropriate that this week we launch the Graduate of the Year Awards to find the outstanding young engineers emerging from the UK's universities in 2005.

As part of their entry, candidates will be asked to discuss how society can continue its current practices in the face of overwhelming evidence of irreversible climate change. Energy supply will no doubt feature heavily in responses.

As I hope they will all realise, the good news right now is that we do still have time to come up with better solutions to the energy supply conundrum.

And I am utterly condent that the profession's new minds will grasp this issue.

They will, I am convinced grasp the chance to do for electricity supply what the mobile phone has done for communication, what the internet has done for information and what the iPod is now doing for music.

Antony Oliver is NCE's Editor

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