Thursday, October 5, 2017

Trade Unions and Nuclear power

The UK Trade Unions currently mostly back nuclear power. In 2016, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady noted that the Hinkley project ‘will be the largest construction project in the UK, creating 25,000 high-quality jobs and 500 apprenticeships’. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/16/hinkley-point-good-enws-workers-economy-not-stop
 It wasn’t always like this. In 1986, in the wake of Chernobyl, the TUC backed a nuclear ‘moratorium and review’ policy. In the same year, the Labour Party had confirmed its 1985 anti (civil) nuclear power stance, with a two thirds majority for phasing it out. The then quite dominant Transport and General Workers Union said it was ‘clear and unambiguous in its position on nuclear power. We support a halt to nuclear expansion and a safe and planned phase out of nuclear power in this country.’ So what has changed?
 The Labour Party had gone into the 1987 national election with a manifesto talking of ‘gradually diminishing Britain’s dependence upon nuclear energy’, but was unable to unseat the Tories, whose subsequent electricity privatisation and liberalisation programme (continued by Blair) put the unions on the defensive - they sought to protect energy jobs across the board. And Blair then switched to a pro-nuclear policy.
 A sub-text to that may have been the low level of conviction by most of the unions at that time that renewables could provide viable alternative employment. In its 1988 Nuclear Energy Review, the TUC said ‘renewables are not going to make a big contribution to Britain’s energy supplies over the next 20 years’.
 Well it’s taken nearly 30 years, but they are now big (25%) growing, and creating jobs-  with nearly 126,000 people employed in the UK renewable energy industry in 2017 according to the REA: http://www.r-e-a.net/news/new-report-shows-nearly-126000-employed-in-growing-renewables-industry-but-growth-slowing
 However, the unions still seem unsure, and some have taken to recycling dubious statistics and arguments to try to undermine the case for renewables.  At its 2016 annual Congress the GMB Union’s National Secretary, Justin Bowden, noted that ‘over the last 12 months there were 46 days when wind was supplying 10% or less of the installed and connected wind capacity to the grid’ and insisted that ‘until there is a scientific breakthrough on carbon capture or solar storage, then nuclear and gas are the only reliable shows in town which those advocating a renewable energy-only policy have to accept.’ www.gmb.org.uk/newsroom/low-wind-days
 This doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. For over half of those 46 low-wind days i.e. outside of winter, and for most of the nights, overall energy demand would have been low, so a low wind input would not matter. When it did, existing gas plants would have ramped up a bit more to provide the extra energy needed e.g. as they do any way to meet daily peaks. As more renewable come of the grid, other balancing measures can also be used, so there is not really a problem. But inflexible base-load nuclear plants are no usef or this - they can’t vary output regularly, quickly and safely. They just get in the way of the flexible supply and demand approach that is needed.
The unions are not unaware of the the benefits of renewables and do offer support for them as well as nuclear. In her 2016 article, Frances O’Grady said ‘while nuclear is an important part of meeting our future energy needs, renewable energy projects need more investment too. Cuts to support for solar power in the last few years have led to the loss of half the 35,000 jobs in the sector. We need sustained investment across the renewable energy sector if we are to achieve our ambition of a carbon-free future, and seize the chance to deliver more high-quality jobs’.
 However, that’s a replay of the ‘more of everything’ approach beloved by the TUC, inherited from the days when they sought to avoid conflicts between members in coal, gas, oil and nuclear, the code phrase used being ‘a balanced energy system’.
 There seems to be no awareness of the opportunity cost issue. Given inevitably limited budgets, choices have to be made: e.g. money spent of nuclear can’t be spent on other options, and for most of the last few decades nuclear has got the lions share of what was available for new energy technology. Thankfully that is beginning to change, although for the pro-nuclear unions that is a cause for regret. Indeed, some say that some of the big unions have ended up as corporate stooges, backing nuclear jobs at all costs: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/sep/26/labours-clive-lewis-accuses-nuclear-unions-of-being-voice-for-big-business
Certainly, with renewables booming and eclipsing nuclear (direct UK nuclear employment is now at around 16,000 and 65,000 in total including indirect jobs), the nuclear unions are on the defensive. And defending options like Hinkely is getting harder by the day. The GMB is also finding it hard to accept the governments plan to let China fund, and maybe build, reactors on the UK: http://www.gmbwalesandsouthwest.org.uk/news/caution-over-chinese-pop-up-nuclear-reactor
 While that battle plays out, there are some signs of a more positive approach, notably CaCC’s excellent 1 Million Climate Jobs campaign. The Unions are also broadly supportive of Labour’s new energy policy, with its emphasis on public ownership and democratic control. Indeed, this years Trade Union Congress backed that, with a broad climate and energy policy motion being passed: https://www.cacctu.org.uk/tuc2017climatemotion But that doesn’t specifically mention nuclear. The otherwise excellent policy developed by PCS, the Public and Commercial Services Union (see my next post), also in effect ducks out of the nuclear issue.
The Labour Party leadership, Corbyn at times apart, still seem to be mostly pro-nuclear, as witness the manifesto commitment earlier this year, and the views expressed at this years Party conference by Labour’s Shadow Secretary for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Rebecca Long-Bailey (she backed the Moorside project), along with Nisa Landy and Caroline Flint (nuclear offered lots of jobs). However, Labour is also strongly pro-renewables and the Party is taking an interest is some of the political issues associated with renewables. The Repowering Britain sessions at this years Labour Party Conference were prefigured by this commentary: ‘Our energy system will be radically transformed with the rise of wind, solar, tidal & energy storage. This clean future should be democratically -run and owned by the people, delivering hundreds of thousands of decent jobs for decades into the future. What does this look like? We have all heard about the small-scale energy co-operatives building solar and wind projects. But the future also needs a bigger scale. Who will build and own the mega offshore wind farms and tidal lagoons that will bottom line our electricity supply for the next century? Publicly owned companies are at the forefront of building the offshore wind energy infrastructure of the future - but they’re Danish, Swedish and German. Only 0.07% of our offshore wind is owned by the UK public’. http://labourenergy.org/labour-conference-2017/
 At the Conference, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said that ‘Labour will ensure we become world leaders in decarbonising our economy. With a publicly owned energy supply based on alternative energy sources…Ours will only become an economy for the many, if we significantly broaden ownership. That means supporting entrepreneurs, small businesses, the genuinely self-employed and massively expanding worker control and the co-operative sector.’ http://press.labour.org.uk/post/165721772504/shadow-chancellor-john-mcdonnell-speech-to-labour
 That’s an interesting debate, but it seems pretty clear that nuclear is not a candidate for local ownership, or even UK ownership! So maybe at some point there will be a change in view- given enough grass roots agitation. That’s what happened in the 1980s, with grass roots groups like SERA doing much of the foot work. While, sadly, on nuclear, it may seem that we are back where we were in the 1980s, starting all over again to build opposition, the rapid growth of renewables, and their continuing cost reductions, does change the situation.
For a full account of the twists and turns of Trade Union and Labour Party policy on nuclear power in the 1980s, see the series of OU Technology Policy Group reports I produced: TPG Occasional Papers No. 4 (1981), 14 (1987) and 17 (1988). I can supply copies.

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