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Nuke the consultation – let’s have a debate!

Greenpeace and the courts have delayed New Labour’s energy white paper. That’s no victory – for you, me or the planet.

Various Authors

Topics Science & Tech

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Last week, from leafy Canonbury, North London, Greenpeace said it was ‘obviously a sham’ (1). Then, at the High Court at the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand, central London, Sir Jeremy Sullivan, a bespectacled critic of John Reid’s anti-terrorist detentions, declared it a sham, too, judging it ‘not merely inadequate but misleading’ (2). Finally, from offices in Victoria, trade and industry secretary Alistair Darling admitted that, though New Labour had initiated it, ‘we got it wrong’ (3).

Clearly, the public consultation launched by New Labour in the wake of The Energy Challenge, its ‘Energy Review Report’ of July 2006 (4), has had its critics. But when Greenpeace activists applied for the review to be made the subject of a judicial review, on the grounds that Energy Challenge had not presented proper information on the costs of nuclear power nor the disposal of nuclear waste, they struck no blow for democracy. Greenpeace’s legal manoeuvres are not a challenge to undemocratic government practices, but rather an extension of them. For proof, look at Alistair Darling’s response. He decided not to appeal against the unelected knight in a wig. Instead, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) will go on fudging the hard arguments that need to be had about the money and engineering that surround new nuclear plants and radioactive waste. Its method: to launch another obscure public consultation on energy.

Greenpeace, we should not forget, is an unrepresentative lobby group. To support it, you need only pay £3 a month on direct debit – and, in association with the Co-operative Bank, you’ve been able to get your very own, PVC-free, Greenpeace Visa card for seven years now (5). In the name of generations of children still unborn, and in the name of the planet, Greenpeace arrogates to itself the role of impressive gadfly to the bourgeoisie. Greenpeace insists that, in its nuclear policies as elsewhere, New Labour is not setting the right environmental example for the ignorant masses to follow. In its campaign against toxic chemicals, Greenpeace seeks to ‘raise public awareness’ about the dangers of industrial pollution (6); on road transport, it wants higher taxes – ones that ‘actually influence purchasing behaviour’ (7). In short, Greenpeace wants to rein in the consumption and habits of the masses.

We can be sure that Greenpeace will look forward to the new round of DTI consultation – closed doors, e-mails and all – with relish. From the photo-opportunism and eventual sinking of the Rainbow Warrior (1985) to Brent Spar (1995), Greenpeace has always preferred media stunts to genuine public debate. (Even one of their founding members has said as much – see A whale of a time.) But for its part, New Labour’s commitment to nuclear power is much more timid than Greenpeace likes to imagine. Indeed, both opponents and advocates of nuclear power in Britain base many of their arguments on a common political premise: fear.

At the time of writing, the DTI has yet to make clear how its new round of nuclear consultations will take place. But its statement on the outcome of Mr Justice Sullivan’s judicial review is worth quoting:

‘This judgement is about the process of consultation, not the principle of nuclear power. We will of course consult further. Tackling climate change takes leadership, taking on tough long-term choices… Over the next two decades the UK is likely to need around 25GW of new electricity generation capacity. We need as much of this as possible to be low carbon. Everyone involved in this debate needs to answer how we do that. Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. A balanced approach is needed – a greater role for renewables and other low carbon sources allied to a strong focus on energy efficiency is we believe the right one.’ (8)

For all the attention that this statement appears to give to principle, leadership, strength of argument and all the rest, its call for a ‘balanced approach’ and a greater role for renewables clearly leaves open the possibility that nuclear will not have much of ‘a role to play’. Nuclear’s role is not to supply a growing British economy with large quantities of energy from capital-intensive installations, but rather to soothe our fears about greenhouse gas emissions, and our fears about energy security. And with these fears uppermost, one might just as well go for wind and wave power – however uneconomic and intermittent these turn out to be.

When the UK government published Energy Challenge, critics of nuclear power complained that it had been fixed. The promised ‘fullest’ consultation on which the document was supposedly based, they said, had been a tiny figleaf hiding a predetermined pro-nuclear policy. Now, on hearing the result of the judicial review, Tony Blair responded bluntly, stating that ‘this won’t affect the policy at all’ (9). But as with previous supposedly pro-nuclear pronouncements, this is less principled than it sounds. What does Blair mean when he refers to ‘the policy’? It is a policy of apprehension: ‘without nuclear power we are going to be dependent on very uncertain supplies of energy and that would be bad for business and bad for the consumer’. (10)

When Energy Challenge was published, we argued that Alistair Darling was right to say that his critics were more ‘mesmerised’ by nuclear power than New Labour ever was (11). This remains our view. In January 2007 the DTI observed:

‘the Government took the view that nuclear had a role to play alongside other low-carbon generating options. We published our view as the basis for a consultation and are currently analysing responses. However, given the comprehensive analysis we undertook before reaching this view, we expect to confirm this as our final policy in the Energy White Paper this year.’ (12)

So the ‘final’ policy – to be confirmed, of course – is that nuclear has a role to play alongside other low-CO2 sources of energy.

This is not finality, but pusillanimity.

Greenpeace’s complaint that the government has not consulted enough on nuclear power is, anyway, rather surreal. In fact, while the government has made pro-nuclear noises, consultation has consistently been used as a substitute for actually having any policy, pro-nuclear or otherwise. Even before New Labour came to power in 1997 with its focus groups and polling, consultation has been pioneered in the area of nuclear power as a way of stifling real debate on controversial issues.

It seems lost on many commentators that the rise of ‘consultation’ in government was never about the extension of democracy. When they are shocked that a government consultation fails to lead to a government change of mind, they show they’ve forgotten that consultation is no more than that – consultation. Unlike voters, consultees have no authority.

What the squabbling over consultation obscures is the lack of real debate on the pros and cons of nuclear power.

The case set out in the High Court was that nuclear power is too risky. After the Judgement of Sullivan, John Sauven, campaigns director of Greenpeace, complained that the government had ‘ignored issues like terrorism and proliferation’ (13). Sarah North, head of Greenpeace’s nuclear campaign, has warned that ‘millions’ of people could die as a result of a terrorist attack on a nuclear plant (14). On the web, Greenpeace distributes Friday the 13th: watch your worst nightmare unfold, a noisy videoclip enactment of an innocent mother and children on a nice beach, aghast as they watch a hijacked aircraft smash into the side of a nuclear power station (15). The organisation also warns that

  • nuclear power stations expose wildlife and people to ‘deadly radiation’
  • one particle of plutonium can ‘cause fatal lung-cancer (sic)’
  • trains carrying nuclear waste could be subject to a terrorist attack which, even it involved just one flask of nuclear waste, ‘could force the evacuation of a large part of a city like London’
  • a car linked to the July 2005 London bombers ‘reportedly’ had ‘maps of Britain’s most nuclear sites’
  • nuclear power is fuel for the arms race. (16)

What does the Government really have to say in riposte to this politics of fear? Well, it is worried about climate change. It is worried about terrorism. It doesn’t like the spread of nuclear materials. It is nervous that Britain’s energy future is endangered by reliance on gas imported from places such as Russia. It is, in short, exercised by just that exaggerated sense of risk peddled by Greenpeace. On all sides we’re offered fear.

We need something better than that. A real and open political battle about nuclear reactors and nuclear waste should commence by refuting the unnecessary and often wholly unscientific paranoia that today surrounds these two things.

Take terrorism. Some useful facts are laid out in a review published in the journal Science. It pointed out that no airplane, regardless of size, can fly through the walls of vessels that contain reactors – and that ‘this has been calculated in detail and tested in 1988 by flying an unmanned plane at 215 m/s (about 480 mph) into a test wall 3.6m thick.’ The review concluded:

‘To tell people that they and the Earth are in mortal danger from events that cannot cause significant public harm is to play into the hands of terrorists by making a minor event a cause for life-endangering panic.’ (17)

Now this is a sensible assessment. More assessment, in the same sober spirit, would not just look at the problems with nuclear power, but also the opportunities. It would consider the benefits we gain from energy generation and nuclear technology in particular. Nuclear energy has helped mankind create an electrified planet. For that, it deserves plain speaking, not the charade of courts and consultation.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation, De Montfort University. Joe Kaplinsky is a science writer.

(1) Sarah North, head of Greenpeace’s nuclear campaign, quoted in Greenpeace UK, Success as government’s nuclear plans ruled unlawful, 15 February 2006

(2) Quoted in The judgment: ‘The document contained no information of substance’, Guardian, 16 February 2007

(3) Quoted in Caroline Adams and others, ‘Court blow to Blair’s nuclear power plan’, Financial Times, 16 February 2007

(4) On Energy Review, Department of Trade and Industry

(5) The Greenpeace Visa card, 15 March 2000

(6) Toxics campaign overview, Greenpeace

(7) Greenpeace slams Government Climate Change Programme review, 28 March 2006

(8) DTI, Judicial review DTI statement, 15 Ferbuary 2007

(9) Blair defiant over nuclear plans, BBC News, 5 February 2007

(10) Ibid.

(11) Joe Kaplinsky and James Woudhuysen, A self-defeating argument for nuclear power, spiked, 12 July 2006

(12) DTI, Appointment of a senior advisor for new nuclear decommissioning and waste management cost allocation, 22 January 2007

(13) Quoted in John Vidal and Terry Macalister, Now the fallout from high court nuclear reaction, Guardian, 16 February 2007

(14) Nuclear power – boom or bust?, Greenpeace

(15) Nuclear power: wrong answer

(17) Chapin et al, ‘Nuclear Power Plants and Their Fuel as Terrorist Targets’, Science, 297 (2002) pp1997-1999

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Topics Science & Tech

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