Thursday, October 1, 2009

Nuclear expansion? Not in my name!

The public debate and the government consultations in 2006 and 2007 on nuclear power were framed in the context of a replacement programme for existing reactors scheduled to close. On this basis it has been suggested that there was if not a clear consensus then at least a majority in favour.

However, subsequently the government began to talk about going beyond replacement. For example, in May 2008 Prime Minister Gordon Brown commented ‘I think we are pretty clear that we will have to do more than simply replace existing nuclear capability in Britain’ while Secretary of State John Hutton said, that, although it was up to the private sector developers, he would be ‘very disappointed’ if the proportion of electricity generated by nuclear did not rise ‘significantly above the current level'. In Aug 2009, Malcolm Wicks MP, the PM’s Special Representative on International Energy, produced a report calling for a UK nuclear contribution of 35-40% ‘beyond 2030’. Currently the UK gets 13% of its electricity from nuclear sources.

The government has also indicated that it saw a major role for exporting UK nuclear technology and expertise. Gordon Brown has indicated that he believes the world needs 1,000 extra nuclear power stations and has argued that Africa could build nuclear power plants to meet growing demands for energy. In 2009 a new UK Nuclear Centre of Excellence was announced to ‘promote wider access to civil nuclear power across the world’, with an initial budget of £20m, along with ‘up to £15m’ for a Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre.

I cannot support any of the above policies or views. As a lifelong Labour movement activist and long standing Labour party member, I have struggled to live with various New Labour policies to which I have been opposed with increasing difficulty, not least in relation to the Iraq invasion. The new policies on nuclear will I believe lead to major long-term global security problems, in terms of the proliferation of nuclear weapons making capacity and the potential for nuclear terrorism. The policies on nuclear could also undermine energy security and environmental sustainability, since money, manpower and other resources will be diverted away from renewables and energy efficiency, which I see as the only long term options for a sustainable energy future, nationally and globally.

I have made these points regularly in various forums, including SERA, of which I was a founding member. But the commitment to an expanded nuclear programme seems set in stone and indeed is deepening. When Business/Energy Secretary, John Hutton said that he was ‘determined to press all the buttons to get nuclear built in this country at the earliest opportunity’ and that approach now seems to be even more prevalent with, in effect, the government trying to talk the prospects of nuclear up, so that companies like EDF might be able to raise finance more easily.

A new Policy Statement on Nuclear is due soon. I doubt if it will go much beyond what the government has already said- that it welcomes the 12GW or so of proposal that have come so far from the private sector. In fact the various contenders, EDF, E.ON etc, have ‘reserved’ a total of 23.6GW of grid links for new nuclear capacity with National Grid. That’s about the same as the wind power capacity we are aiming to have by 2020. But as EDF have pointed out, there are operational and economic reasons why a major expansion of nuclear would be incompatible with a major expansion of renewable electricity generation.

The Labour leadership, and I fear many party members, cannot see the lunacy of this approach, which could I undermine our attempts to deal with climate change.

I therefore, reluctantly, decided to resign from the Labour party, not least since I find it impossible to canvas on its behalf. A letter to the Guardian to this effect (9/9/09) attracted a lot of support form others who welcomed my principled stance. My conviction that I was right was further reinforced by Ed Miliband’s comment at the TUC later in Sept. that "'Nuclear power no thanks' today means 'climate change no doubt' tomorrow”. That’s almost on par with John Hutton’s comment to last years Labour Party Conference (22/9/08), where he was reported to have said : ‘No coal and no nuclear equals no lights, no power, no future’. And at this years Party Conference Gordon Brown also backed nuclear as a key innovation.

Given that SERA has become ever more closely identified with New Labour, to which it has become formally affiliated, and has seen fit to have pro-nuclear David Miliband as its president, despite SERA’s long held anti-nuclear policy, I have, with even more regret, also resigned from SERA.

I have long thought that what is now still called 'SERA' should by relabeled 'The Labour Environment Campaign' (its current sub title), so that a separate body called SERA could continue independently to promote the radical red and green policies it used to back. But that clearly is not going to happen, so sadly after many years of activism, I am moving on. I have to say I find the approach of groups like Workers Climate Action and the Climate Change Campaign Trade Union Group much more in keeping with SERA’s original grass roots approach.

These changes in affiliation will coincide with my retirement from the Open University after 38 years trying to relay rational and sustainable approaches to technology and energy policy to a wide audience. But I wont be going quietly into the night! For example, as well as working with trade union groups, and in addition to continuing with this and other blogs, I’ll be continuing to produce Renew, the bimonthly newsletter on renewable energy development and policies, on an independent basis: see

David Elliott,
(Emeritus) Professor of Technology Policy,
The Open University