There is an episode of “Spooks” – a BBC Spy Drama – in which “green terrorists” threaten to blow up the Thames Barrier and flood London unless the Government releases a report proving it is secretly trying to appear serious about climate change whilst actually continuing with business as usual. Few commentators would be surprised today if they were to learn such a report actually exists.
Friends of the Earth (FoE) and the charity Help the Aged lodged papers at the High Court in London on 9th April seeking a Judicial Review of UK energy efficiency policy because of the Government’s failure to meet its legal obligation to eradicate fuel poverty. People suffering from fuel poverty are defined as those spending more than 10% of their income on heating and lighting. According to the Government’s Fuel Poverty Advisory Group (FPAG), more than 2.3m of the most vulnerable households in England suffer from fuel poverty, which means around eight old people are dying every hour due to cold related illnesses in the winter months.
Britain has plans for ten new “Eco-Towns” and all new houses will be zero-carbon after 2016. But 80% of the houses the UK population will inhabit in 2050 are already built, so, in order to cut carbon emissions by 60%, as will be a legal requirement when the Climate Change Bill currently going through parliament is passed, then emissions from these buildings will need to be cut by at least the same amount. Yet current plans expect an entirely inadequate contribution from the domestic sector.
Heat loss from the existing 25 million dwellings will need to be halved and around 600,000 microgeneration schemes, such as solar panels, need to be installed every year for the next 42 years, rather than the paltry 121,000 expected in the next three years.1 270 domestic solar PV systems were installed in 2007, compared with 130,000 in Germany. Environment groups have been focusing on persuading the UK Government to join the global renewable energy boom, and develop a renewable energy manufacturing base. Campaigners have persuaded a remarkable 270 MPs to sign a motion supporting German and Spanish style feed-in tariffs for small-scale renewable energy producers.2 WWF-UK too has been campaigning for the introduction of financial incentives to motivate homeowners to improve the energy efficiency of their homes and rewards for homeowners who generate their own electricity from micro-renewables.3
UK fuel poverty and climate campaigners are struggling to understand how exactly the Government thinks its new found enthusiasm for nuclear power will help. The big worry is that attention, finances and resources will get diverted from what really needs to be done now to tackle climate change, as seems to have happened in Finland. We can’t afford to wait until 2025 to discover, as past experience tells us we will, the new reactor programme was a £30bn mistake. Environment groups themselves are being careful not to switch too many resources from more immediate climate campaigning to fighting future plans for nuclear revival.
Jonathon Porritt, former FoE Director, and now Chairman of the Government’s Sustainable Development Commission, says UK ministers are putting more effort into encouraging nuclear power than they have devoted to the entire field of renewables over the last 10 years. Ministers see nuclear power as the only manageable mega-fix available to them, the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card – a sad and extraordinarily ill-judged illusion.
Walt Patterson, an FoE nuclear campaigner in the 1970s, says the pro-nuclear argument was comprehensively demolished two decades ago, so, like many people, he was astonished and bemused when nuclear power re-entered the policy agenda again in 2005. Given the nuclear industry’s history of failure, why the Government thinks this industrial basket-case might be an appropriate place to look for a solution to the climate change problem is a bit mystifying.
New reactors are not going to start springing up very quickly. A Strategic Siting Assessment to identify possible sites will begin soon with a consultation on draft criteria, but won’t be completed until the end of 2009. The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate has been assessing four new designs, but, even though AECL has pulled its ACR1000 design out of the race, it won’t be finished until 2012. Then there will a planning process which might finish in 2013, so construction might start in 2014.
In February 2003, the Blair Government published its first Energy White Paper. This concluded that the current economics of nuclear power made it an unattractive option, and there are important issues of nuclear waste to be resolved. The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) Minister at the time, Patricia Hewitt, said “It would have been foolish to announce …a new generation of nuclear power stations, because that would have guaranteed we would not make the necessary investments in energy efficiency and renewables.”
But the anti-nuclear Ministers in Blair’s Government at the time failed to kill it off altogether. Instead it was put on the back-burner, supposedly for five years. There were warnings even then that DTI officials would deliberately go slowly on renewables to keep nuclear alive – this is indeed what seems to have happened. Blair didn’t like the results of the 2003 energy review and started talking about re-visiting it as early as 2005. Nearly all the Ministers who pushed renewables and energy efficiency in 2003 had been moved by then, so in July 2006 a new draft White Paper backed new reactors.
Greenpeace challenged the legality of the July 2006 White Paper process, and in February 2007 the high court ruled it to be unlawful, so the Government was forced to hold another consultation. The second consultation ended on 10th October 2007 – by coincidence the 50th anniversary of Britain’s worst nuclear accident – the Windscale Fire. But this was no better than the first, and most environment groups had ended co-operation in September prior to a series of workshops held in 8 cities with 1,100 members of the public. They said the government had failed to fairly reflect the arguments, and distorted the evidence, dubbing it “a public relations stitch-up”, FoE said “it is clear that the Government has essentially made up its mind … we are not prepared to take part in this latest Government farce”.
Independently, 20 senior academics say the consultations were deliberately skewed by linking nuclear to fears about climate change – because the government knew this was the only way to get people to accept nuclear, albeit reluctantly. Participants were misled – an inconvenient truth about nuclear – that it can only make a small contribution to reducing the UK’s overall CO2 emissions – was buried.4
Patricia Hewitt’s replacement, John Hutton, now known as the Secretary of State for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, insists there will no subsidies for new reactors but the small print of the January 2008 Energy White Paper suggests a ceiling on the price private firms will have to pay for waste management and decommissioning, reducing companies’ risks and making it cheaper for them to borrow. Greenpeace accused the government of providing covert subsidies and fixing the market.
Despite over two years’ work by the Government’s Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), there is still no clear solution to the problem of what to do with nuclear waste. CoRWM specifically said it did not want its recommendations seized upon to support new reactors, but that is exactly what the Government is doing. The Liberal Democrats spokesman, Vince Cable, complained that “Gordon Brown is wedded to building a new generation of nuclear power stations without providing any new evidence on how it would deal with waste ….”
The answer, according to the Government, is to bribe local communities to accept a nuclear waste dump. So, the next stage in the UK’s sorry thirty year history of nuclear dumping proposals will be a White Paper in the spring accompanied by a letter inviting municipalities to volunteer to host a dump.
Meanwhile, the devolved Scottish Government has expressed total opposition to nuclear power and refused to endorse the nuclear waste consultation process. It does not accept it is right to seek to bury nuclear waste, which will remain active for thousands of years, in a deep geological facility, or to expect any community to host such a facility.
Viewed from Europe, anti-nuclear activity in Britain may seem thin on the ground. Environment groups have prioritized work on climate, seeking to introduce policies on energy efficiency and renewables which NGOs in many other European countries can already take for granted. UK activists taking direct action against airport expansions and coal-fired power stations see themselves, quite rightly, as the last generation that can do anything about climate change. But, as last summer’s Heathrow Climate Camp day of action at Sizewell showed, nuclear power is not seen as a solution. If the proposals for new UK reactors continue to move ahead, and sites become clearer, nuclear power will be seen, not only as increasingly irrelevant to the job in hand, but as a positive hindrance which needs to be defeated.
This article originally appeared in WISE Nuclear Monitor No.671 April 17th 2008