A little less consultation, a bit more action please

In the run-up to a live spiked debate, Tim Black says Britain has become a world leader in dithering on nuclear power.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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In central London on 25 June, spiked , in association with Clark Mulder Purdie, is hosting a live debate titled ‘Nuclear Power: What’s the Alternative?’ (more information below). Here, Tim Black asks why British ministers’ one-time enthusiasm for the ‘civilisational’ development of nuclear power has turned into endless consulting and dithering on building new reactors.

‘We need secure, clean and sufficient [energy] supplies if we are to continue to function as a modern society.’

So said UK business secretary John Hutton in his introduction to A White Paper on Nuclear Power published earlier this year. However, the urgency of the rhetoric was not quite matched by the paper’s proposal: ‘It is in the public interest to allow energy companies the option of investing in new nuclear power stations.’ (3) Forever cast as an option, nuclear power, it seems, never quite becomes the solution.

Today’s political leaders are all too keen to pass the buck – in this case to, energy companies; yet they have not always been so shy in coming forward. ‘Our civilisation is based on power… As a leading industrial nation our duty, both to ourselves and other countries, is to establish this new industry of nuclear energy on a firm foundation, and to develop it with speed.’ (2) Those were the words of the Conservative government of 1955, in a White Paper titled A Programme for Nuclear Power.

And that was not an isolated outbreak of confidence; whether Tory or Labour, for good or ill, political commitment sustained the British nuclear industry through its infancy. From the promise of electricity ‘too cheap to meter’ in the 1950s to Labour minister Tony Benn lauding nuclear ‘as the cheap and secure energy source of the future’ in the 1970s, faith in nuclear technology was unwavering.

The rate at which new power plants were constructed indicates as much. Following engineers’ realisation that, with a slight alteration in design, nuclear reactors like those at Windscale – then little more than weapons-grade plutonium factories – could also heat water, power a turbine and produce electricity, work began on the first ostensibly civil nuclear plant at Calder Hall in 1953. Three years later it was operational. By the time the Wylfa plant in Anglesey was commissioned in 1971, 10 more nuclear power stations of a similar type – called ‘magnox’ after the magnesium non-oxidising alloy used to encase the nuclear fuel – were up and running.

While its achievements are evident, the development of the UK’s nuclear industry has not been without significant problems. From the 1957 Windscale fire, details of which were withheld for 30 years, to the spectacularly protracted Dungeness B build, mismanagement, both technical and fiscal, has hung around nuclear power like an old-fashioned pea-souper.

This did not deter further development, however. Indeed, before work had even started on the last of the magnox reactors, the next wave of nuclear reactors was already being implemented. This phase, signalled by the 1964 White Paper The Second Nuclear Programme, led to the construction of a further seven advanced gas-cooled reactors (AGRs).

Reflecting upon this period of nuclear policy, one commentator noted that it was ‘a comparatively easy task… A national need was identified, a national programme was ordered into action, and a national reactor design (or two) eventually emerged.’ (3) Today, however, the will required to realise a large-scale, technologically sophisticated solution, once the preserve of the state, is difficult to locate.

The one place from which such a commitment will not arise is the market – and yet today’s government ministers seem to believe that business can drive nuclear development.

At the time of the energy industry’s privatisation during the 1990s, the mismanagement of nuclear power, from Dungeness B to Sellafield, from safety cover-ups to forged finances, was cited as a justification for denationalisation. For too long, it was argued, the decisions taken by our political representatives were not governed by economic rationality. A bit of competition, so the argument went, would ensure that good, economic sense would prevail. And prevail it did: the high costs involved in reactor construction, maintenance and waste disposal meant that gas seemed like a far shrewder investment. By 2003, such was the parlous state of the nuclear industry, public money had to be used to rescue its majority owner, British Energy, from bankruptcy (4).

In the absence of a political will to plan and implement a macro energy policy, the private interests manifest in the energy market have provided no substitute, adventitious or otherwise. Instead, with a political elite lacking the authority to act in the collective good, and a market unable to, a vacuum exists at the heart of energy policy.

Nowhere is this lack more apparent than in the phenomenon that exists where decisive action used to be: consultation. Indeed, for all the talk of imminent energy shortages, the one resource that seems plentiful is hot air.

Back in the UK government’s 2002 energy review it was stated that ‘there is no current case for public support for the existing generation of nuclear technology’ but ‘there are, however, good grounds for taking a positive stance to keeping the nuclear option open.’ (5) Then the following year, along came the energy White Paper, Our Energy Future: Creating a Low Carbon Economy, where it was decided that: ‘This White Paper does not contain specific proposals for building new nuclear power stations.’ However, ‘we do not rule out the possibility that at some point in the future a new nuclear build might be necessary if we are to meet our carbon targets.’ Furthermore, ‘before any decision to proceed with the building of new nuclear power stations, there will need to be the fullest public consultation and the publication of a further White Paper setting out our proposals.’ (6)

With no rest for the vapid, 2005 saw nuclear power once again being talked about as a possible option. In fact, speaking to the Confederation of British Industry, the PM Tony Blair announced that nuclear power was ‘back on the agenda with a vengeance’ (7). Clearly innervated, in 2006 the government announced the following: ‘New nuclear power stations would make a significant contribution to meeting our energy policy goals.’ (8) Such was the hot-air-fuelled momentum that another white paper in 2007 was inevitable. And this time it was decided that the advantages outweighed the disadvantages.

This year, following a period of consultation, officialdom finally arrived at this non-committal fudge: ‘The government’s preliminary view is that it is in the public interest to give the private sector the option of investing in new nuclear power stations’, a view ‘subject’, almost inevitably, ‘to consultation’ (9).

The 2007 energy review, Meeting the Energy Challenge, captures the unintentional comedy of this cycle of responsibility-shirking: ‘This process began prior to the energy White Paper in 2003, continued with the consultation immediately before the publication of the energy review report in 2006 and the further consultation after it was published, culminating in the consultation in May this year setting out our preliminary view on nuclear power.’ (10)

Such wilful indecision expresses well the sense of illegitimacy haunting the political elite. Forever fearful of further alienating those they nominally govern, an endless lurching from consultation to publication exists in lieu of confident decision-making.

Unfortunately, serial prevarication invites those being consulted to feel that the exercise is at best fruitless, or at worst, cynical. Little wonder that Greenpeace is able to argue – with a great deal of success if its legal challenge last February is anything to go by (11) – that there is a secret campaign to implement nuclear power. With officialdom making no real case for nuclear power, its opponents can present political weakness as a covert plot.

If nuclear power really is to make a substantial contribution to meeting the UK’s energy needs, the government needs to take responsibility, and not only say why nuclear power is necessary but how. And if that entails publicly funding, and state-running the industry, then so be it. As Bernard Ingham, secretary of Supporters of Nuclear Power, argued: ‘The nuclear industry has to champion its technology. Either it believes in it or it doesn’t. It hasn’t done anything to meet the arguments of the greens who have belittled nuclear…’ (12)

Tim Black is organising the spiked debate, ‘Nuclear Power: what’s the alternative?’, in association with Clark Mulder Purdie. It will take place between 6.30pm and 8.30pm on Wednesday 25 June at the Royal Institute of British Architects in central London. Buy your tickets here.

Previously on spiked

Rob Johnston exposed 10 myths about nuclear power. 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. As part of spiked‘s ‘Future of Energy’ debate, Malcolm Grimston argued that nuclear was the only proven, low-carbon technology. Or read more at spiked issue Energy.

(1) A White Paper on Nuclear Power, BERR, January 2008

(2) A Way Forward for Nuclear Power – A 2006 Energy Review submission, by Adrian Ham and Robert Hall, 20 February 2006

(3) UK: Back to the nuclear future, BBC News, 10 January 2008

(4) Deal keeps lights on at British Energy, Telegraph, 1 October 2003

(5) UK review keeps nuclear option open, Nuclear Monitor, 8 March 2002

(6) Our Energy Future – Creating a Low Carbon Economy, DTI, February 2003

(7) Blair opens new nuclear options, BBC News, 29 November 2005

(8) Nuclear power plants get go-ahead, 11 July 2006

(9) A White Paper on Nuclear Power, BERR, January 2008

(10) Meeting the Challenge – A White Paper on Energy, DTI, May 2007

(11) See Greenpeace wins nuclear challenge, Greenpeace, 15 February 2007

(12) Nuclear power’s uneasy history, Telegraph, 24 May 2007

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

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