The myth that New Labour is pro-nuclear

Everyone from big business to greens imagines that British government policy favours nuclear energy. It doesn’t.

Various Authors

Topics Science & Tech

From big business supporters of new reactors through to their alarmist critics, it seems that everyone agrees that British government policy favours nuclear energy.

When Ed Miliband’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) recently published a list of possible sites for freshly-built reactors, the chief executive of the Nuclear Industries Association enthused that it showed ‘that we’re making strong and tangible progress towards building new nuclear’.

On the other hand, Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat spokesman on energy and climate change, warned that while billions of pounds might be ‘wasted’ on ‘a colossal mistake’, there was also ‘a real danger that the government is becoming too close to the big energy companies’ (1). Greenpeace, which was founded to oppose nuclear weapons testing and has always opposed nuclear energy, weighed in too. Greenpeace chief scientist Doug Parr lamented how ‘the government bows to utility lobbying, like that of French state-owned nuclear power firm EDF’.

New Labour may well like to cosy up to big power companies like EDF, E.ON and RWE. It has also been revealed that directors of the 300-strong, 58 per cent government-funded Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), which is in charge of cleaning up nuclear sites, have been getting bonuses of up to £85,000 (2). But practical policy on the ground suggests a quite different attitude to nuclear.

Take Alistair Darling’s Budget last week. It had sops for North Sea oil and gas producers, wind power, combined heat and power, and electric cars. Darling also announced an unspecified ‘new funding mechanism’ to finance between two and four demonstration projects in carbon capture and storage (CCS). This was a forthright move, given that, since 2005, New Labour has put a derisory £6.4million into research into CCS (3). But search Darling’s Budget speech, and the word ‘nuclear’ is nowhere to be found (4).

That’s for a reason. New Labour’s January 2008 White Paper on nuclear power clearly reveals its priorities:

Key concepts and number of mentions in the UK government’s January 2008 White Paper on nuclear power (5)

As we noted in our book Energise! A Future For Energy Innovation: ‘Climate change and energy security dominate the government’s rationale for nuclear power, with the need to generate more electricity far behind these two considerations. Meanwhile, safety, risk, physical security, costs, waste and decommissioning weigh heavily with officialdom. With these obsessions as the ground rules, nuclear power cannot win. Only if society’s need for more energy is put in the foreground can nuclear power’s supporters expect to win the arguments for it. Exactly how many nuclear plants does the UK need? How many megawatts should they generate? How fast should they be built, and where, exactly? The government gives no answers to these questions.’ (6)

Recent statements from DECC confirm the government’s pattern of evasions. Green posturing and very modest green investment come way before genuine support for new nuclear power.

Not long ago, Ed Miliband notoriously suggested that opposition to wind power should be as socially unacceptable as failing to wear a seat belt (7). But when the DECC published its list of possible sites for new reactors, it put out a press release titled ‘Have your say on potential sites for new nuclear power stations’. In that release, this is what Miliband murmured about the new list:

‘This is another important step towards a new generation of nuclear power stations. I want to listen to what people have to say about these nominations and I encourage people to log on to our website, read the information and let us have their comments. We will consider this alongside the advice of our independent expert regulators.’

He continued: ‘Later this year we will be running a consultation on the draft list of sites, so people will have further opportunities to have their say. Nuclear power is part of the low carbon future for Britain. It also has the potential to offer thousands of jobs to the UK and multi-million pound opportunities to British businesses.’ (8)

Opposition to wind power? Akin to driving illegally. Opposition to nuclear power? Oh, have your say, not once, but twice!

There are plenty of spurious arguments around for people to ‘have their say’ about. In the north-west of England, where Britain’s most high-profile nuclear facility resides, Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment declare that ‘any new nuclear installations in the county would be disastrous for Cumbria’ (12). This is simply untrue; people are much more likely to be exposed to radiation in a hospital nuclear medicine department than they are from the Sellafield plant or any nuclear power station.

If it’s not health fears, it’s the threat of terrorism that is used to argue against development. Charles Barnett, chairman of the Shutdown Sizewell Campaign, warns that ‘with the heightened risk of terrorism’, it is ‘foolhardy’ to build more reactors (13). In fact, a terrorist attack on a nuclear installation is unlikely to be catastrophic (14). Since the same line of argument is now also used against oil and gas networks, and liquid natural gas terminals such as Milford Haven, it’s clear that the threat from al-Qaeda is increasingly being used to rule out any form of energy supply that does not conform to green prejudice.

Significantly, all of the 11 sites proposed for new reactors are next to existing ones – the government doesn’t want to inflame opinion, after all. The sites were also vetted so that they ‘could be operational by 2025’ (9). This is a retreat from nuclear power, not ‘another important step towards’ it. In the space of 15 months, the government has moved from a hope that new nuclear plant would be operational in 2018, to the conjecture that Britain may generate electricity using new nuclear… in 16 years’ time.

In fact, nuclear power is worthwhile in its own right. Reactors are ready to provide Britain with what it needs right now – a lot more energy. Only green opposition, invited by the government, makes the planning process around nuclear so sluggish.

Reactors also cost little to run in terms of fuel. That represents progress. Last and most definitely least – but the only argument the government feels it can muster in favour of nuclear – reactors do not generate CO2.

Nuclear will do more than help Britain muddle through its impending shortage of energy supply. We should be talking about the possibilities of a new generation of nuclear – one that will not only produce electricity, but also hydrogen, together with the power to drive desalination plants (10). People worry about waste, but next-generation nuclear technology will not only generate less waste; it will be used to burn up much of the world’s existing nuclear detritus (11).

The real waste that’s going on with nuclear power in Britain is the government’s waste of everybody’s time pretending that it is committed to new reactors. Why doesn’t it stop beating about the bush and declare its outright opposition to new nuclear? That way, those of us who support nuclear could challenge it more openly, and we could have a better-informed debate about the whole issue, instead of yet more dithering – or, as the phrase goes, ‘consultation’.

James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky are authors of Energise! A future for energy innovation (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Tim Black attacked government plans to make opposition to windfarms unacceptable. Rob Johnston said that the answer to our energy problems is not blowing in the wind. Joe Kaplinsky and James Woudhuysen argued that the UK government’s consultation on nuclear power focused on changing our behaviour. Joe Kaplinsky demanded that the government put a positive case for nuclear power. Or read more at spiked issue Energy.

(1) Nuclear power plant construction site options unveiled, Guardian, 15 April 2009

(2) Taxpayer foots the bill for nuclear bonuses, The Times (London), 22 April 2009

(3) Exclusive: UK government invests just £6.4m in CCS since 2004, BusinessGreen, 11 March 2008

(4) Transcript of the chancellor’s speech, Financial Times, 22 April 2009

(5) Meeting the energy challenge: a white paper on nuclear power, Department of Business, Eneterprise and Regulatory Reform, January 2008

(6) Energise! A future for energy innovation, by James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky, Beautiful Books, 2009, pp182-3

(7) See Windmills of the mind, by Tim Black

(8) Have your say on potential sites for new nuclear power stations, DECC, 15 April 2009

(9) Have your say on potential sites for new nuclear power stations, DECC, 15 April 2009

(10) A Technology Roadmap for Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems, Gen IV International Forum, December 2002

(11) A Technology Roadmap for Generation IV Nuclear Energy Systems, Gen IV International Forum, December 2002

(12) Nuclear power plant construction site options unveiled, Guardian, 15 April 2009

(13) ‘Nuclear Power Plants and Their Fuel as Terrorist Targets’, Science, Vol 297, No 5589, 20 September 2002, pp1997-1999

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today