Nuclear power - the big distraction

Craig Bennett

15 September 2014

Why nuclear is a big distraction from the real changes Friends of the Earth is helping to drive

Last Wednesday was weird. And the rest of last week continued in that vein.

That morning I was shaving, before heading into London for work, when suddenly my ears pricked up at an 8 o’clock bulletin on the Today programme.

The announcer declared:

"The leading environmental group Friends of the Earth has revealed it’s no longer opposed to nuclear power in principle. It’s a significant change in an organisation that has constantly fought nuclear on safety grounds since it was founded in 1969. The group says, however, that it still opposes the building of new nuclear power stations in the UK but now it’s because the process is too long and costs too much.”

The report ended with the words: “It’s a huge and controversial shift”.

I almost dropped my razor. I'd been interviewed for a report earlier that morning on nuclear power’s role in the energy system and keeping the lights on. However, as Director of Policy and Campaigns at Friends of the Earth, this supposed significant change was news to me. It was also news to our supporters, some of whom contacted us, as they understood from the report that this “huge and controversial shift” indicated we'd become pro-nuclear.

I knew, of course, that we had refreshed our position on nuclear power more than a year ago. We do this from time to time with lots of our policies.

Friends of the Earth has long been proud to be an organisation that roots our policy positions in the best available evidence. In 2012 we thought it was right to make sure that we had the most up-to-date evidence on various aspects of the energy debate. We were particularly interested to understand more about the projected costs and build rate of nuclear power plants, and to what extent they divert investment away from renewables.

We commissioned the Tyndall Centre at Manchester University to review the evidence - and their work was peer reviewed by academics. We then used this to inform a discussion among staff, volunteers and our local groups in the first half of 2013 to produce a refresh of our policy position in August 2013, titled “Why Friends of the Earth opposes plans for new nuclear reactors” (just in case anyone was in any doubt).

It's true to say that this refreshed policy position majored on the huge costs and Alice-In-Wonderland economics of nuclear power; an industry that has been pampered by governments like no other sector for more than 70 years, yet still requires eye-watering taxpayer hand-outs to enable it to operate, let alone build new plants. Our 2013 policy also clearly detailed the continued problem with nuclear safety, waste and proliferation.

But it’s not true to say that it represented a big change for Friends of the Earth, as anyone can see if they take a look at our website. Take, for example, this press release from 2005 – a full 9 years ago - responding to Tony Blair’s plans to build new nuclear plants, in which we listed our concerns in pretty much the same order as in our recent policy. And anyway, the exorbitant cost of nuclear power is directly because of concerns over safety; you can’t separate out the two. 

Most people would be hard pushed to spot any substantive difference between our 2013 policy position, and our 2005 position. Of course emphasis and language shift over time, but a “huge and controversial shift”? This doesn’t feel true within Friends of the Earth. 

Further, while some reports have suggested that my organisation is locked in an internal battle over this issue I can say quite categorically that this is nonsense. Of our quarter of a million supporters, just a handful over the years have indicated to us we should have a different position.

Real solutions

The truth and irony are that for a long time nuclear has just not been a big focus for us. Since at least the 1990s (but arguably earlier than that) Friends of the Earth has consciously put the bulk of our effort into campaigning for the solutions we want to see, rather than into opposing what we don’t want to see – something that is surely right when we have limited resources.

That’s why for the past decade we’ve been campaigning hard to make sure the UK realises the extraordinary potential of its renewable energy resource. As a country, we are blessed with the whole deck: on- and offshore wind, solar, wave, tidal and even geothermal.

And we’ve done pretty well. We won the campaign to introduce (and then keep) the Feed-In Tariff for solar power; our local groups have supported countless planning applications for wind farms; and our hugely successful campaign for the Climate Change Act put the legislative framework in place that helped unlock hundreds of millions of pounds worth of investment in renewable energy. Opinion polls consistently show that around 70-80% of the public want to see a much greater proportion of our energy coming from renewable sources.

But there’s much more to do, of course, which is why our Run on Sun campaign aims to make it easy for thousands of schools across the country to run on solar power, and save money in the process. Just this week, we launched a competition for one lucky school to win a free solar roof – paid for by Friends of the Earth supporters.

We’re also campaigning for a step change in the UK’s approach to energy efficiency. For just over £2 billion pounds a year (about a tenth of the cost of one nuclear power station), the Government could offer interest-free loans to help every household in the country get up to Energy Performance Certificate “C”, knocking £300 a year off the average home fuel bill.

Of course, we still have to campaign to stop some daft things, with the most recent madness being the push for fracking. Our brilliant legal team and fantastic local groups have played a huge role in keeping dirty fossil fuels in the ground – exactly where they should remain given the threat posed by dangerous climate change.

In this context nuclear doesn’t half seem to me to be a big distraction. And so it has been this past week, with some rather odd, inaccurate media reporting about a big “shift” in our policy position that, as Director of Policy and Campaigns, I just don’t recognise.

And that’s a real shame, when right across the country, our local groups, activists, supporters and staff, are engaged in ground-breaking campaigns on renewables, energy efficiency and fracking, that really are resulting in big shifts.

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