You can’t trust the nuclear industry, and we don’t need them

by Sally Bercow

The nuclear emergency at Fukushima, which is still unfolding, has thrust nuclear power back in the spotlight. Many people have jumped on the renascent anti-nuclear bandwagon (welcome, Angela Merkel) and, quite rightly, nuclear safety assessments are now underway in many countries, not least our own (the government’s chief nuclear adviser will deliver a report in September).

While recognising that it’s foolhardily “off message” for a wannabe Labour politician, I confess I have long been against nuclear power. And not because it’s got the “scary” word “nuclear” in it (a patronising, cheap shot the pro-nuclear lobby often resort to making). Indeed, I know that, statistically speaking, nuclear power is pretty safe, despite the catastrophies of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Actually, for the record, although I’m unequivocally anti nuclear power, when it comes to defence I’m certainly no unilateralist (Britain needs to maintain some form of nuclear deterrent – albeit not the absurdly expensive and over-the-top Trident system).

The reason I’m against nuclear power is two-fold. First, I don’t trust the industry and second (and far less subjectively), I believe that it’s a tremendously expensive distraction – preventing us from realising the enormous potential of renewable energy.

On the trust question, I worked for the nuclear energy industry’s trade association, the British nuclear forum (BNF) as it then was, almost 20 years ago. I’d love to claim that I took the job because I was a pioneering environmentalist, appreciating the role nuclear could play in combating climate change. But that would be completely to rewrite history. To be honest, the danger of climate change wasn’t much talked about back in 1992 and the so-called “nuclear renaissance” we have seen in recent years was still some way off .

The rather more humdrum reality was that I didn’t feel strongly about nuclear power (although I was vaguely pro), the job paid half as much again as the one I was I came from and, what’s more, the working hours were pretty dossy (standard 9 to 5) in comparison. The point is that I was immediately shaken by the culture of the industry – and not just the fact that it was completely male-dominated, apart from in the lower ranks.

I worked in the communications department and, suffice to say, there were a few “events” in nuclear power plants around the country during my time at the BNF, though minor ones. The culture was one of “hush hush”, don’t give out any information, always play it down, fob off the media, “don’t take the call”. I can’t say that the information we put out was untrue (to my knowledge, it wasn’t) but, even as a PR person, I felt uncomfortable with the total lack of objectivity and the level of propaganda.

So I got out after six months. And I’ve never trusted a word the nuclear industry has said since. And when it came to Fukushima, the nuclear power advocates were out once again trying to downplay and minimise the events.

Nuclear power can never be 100 per cent safe. Nor, indeed, can any energy source. The trouble with nuclear power is that it has the potential for catastrophe – because of design inadequacies, natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

On the other hand, while the possibility of a nuclear calamity is very real, it is not very likely. But the question remains – is a cataclysmic nuclear accident a risk worth taking when there are other alternatives?

And other alternatives there most certainly are. Which brings me to the second main reason for my opposition – the government having invested huge amounts of time and energy in nuclear power to the detriment of renewable sources of energy. Unlike nuclear, these alternative forms of energy do not require massive subsidies in the long-term, not least because they don’t generate huge quantities of radioactive waste. As Chris Huhne observed in 2007 (before he traded his principled opposition to nuclear power for the unprincipled acquisition of personal power):

“the government must stop putting time, effort and subsidies into reviving this outdated industry. The nuclear industry’s key skill over the past half-century has not been generating electricity, but extracting lashings of taxpayers’ money”.

The simple fact is that if we invested a fraction of what we invest in nuclear in renewables – in wind, wave and tidal power, together with the use of carbon capture and storage technology – we would have a clean, sustainable energy future. As a growing number of studies have shown, if we determinedly refocused energy policy on a major expansion of renewables and invested more in energy efficiency, we could replace our reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear. A greater focus on and investment in “powering down” is needed; we must reduce energy consumption – not least by embarking on a nationwide refit of homes, which leak energy to a shameful degree (£1 in every £4 we spend on heating is wasted).

The problem with nuclear power is that it undermines other solutions that can deliver energy and emissions cuts more quickly and cheaply. It is high time that the government dumped the nuclear dogma and intensified the drive for cheaper, cleaner, efficient energy – renewable energy.

Sally Bercow is a Labour activist, and a writer and broadcaster.

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5 Responses to “You can’t trust the nuclear industry, and we don’t need them”

  1. West Midlands Activist says:

    Mrs Bercow demonstrates a complete ignorance of the energy market in the UK in this article.

    Firstly, no public subsidy is going to the nuclear industry for the next generation of nuclear power stations, unlike the colossally expensive offshore wind projects. Perhaps she can therefore put some numbers on the ridiculous assertion that:

    “… if we invested a fraction of what we invest in nuclear in renewables – in wind, wave and tidal power, together with the use of carbon capture and storage technology – we would have a clean, sustainable energy future.”

    Incidentally is she aware that the government has invested a billion pounds in trialling carbon capture and storage – more than any other government? This is not an either-or situation.

    And what is her solution to the intermittency of wind power? If she doesnt want any nuclear power stations at all then base load as well as peaking plant will have to be gas – and in the absence of any commercially viable CCS technology yet that would mean higher CO2 emissions.

    And as for her nonsense about not trusting the nuclear industry, she draws that conclusion from working for them for 6 months some 20 years ago ina pretty junior position. This is the most highly regulated industry in the world. She can’t admit to it’s safety (as she does) then throw this ambiguous smear. It is hardly surprising if the industry doesn’t go out of it’s way to publicise minor incidents that are dealt with properly by the safety systems that are designed to do so. Is she alleging that unsafe practices are covered up and the regulation and inspection regime is inadequate? If not, no story.

    I fear this is a trendy lefty attempt to jump on the anti nuclear bandwagon. And once again I wonder why this lady, who is nothing more than one of thousands of failed council candidates, is deemed to be some sort of a national commentator? In this case on an issue she clearly knows little about?

  2. AnneJGP says:

    An interesting article, Sally, thank you.

    I was intrigued by this remark:
    A greater focus on and investment in “powering down” is needed; we must reduce energy consumption – not least by embarking on a nationwide refit of homes, which leak energy to a shameful degree (£1 in every £4 we spend on heating is wasted).

    This seems to be rather a neat and exact comparison to the deficit.

  3. Very interesting article, Sally

  4. w.k moss says:

    my concerns resonate in that we as a nation should invest in all alternative energy solutions wholeheartedly where humanly possible,nuclear should only be considered in the last instance only in filling in the void with whats left over in regards to energy supply to our nation.sadly we seem to be thinking the other way around.the amount of jobs that could be GENERATED(pardon pun)is immense.NUCLEAR ENERGY,LAST RESORT ENERGY.full stop

  5. owen says:

    I think the author could do with more research on each of the areas they comment on. This has the feel to it of a string of opinions which are formed first, which the author then tries to justify.

    West midland activist makes a lot of good points. I am not at all surprised that the nuclear industry is very careful about what information it shares, look at the frenzy of the Fukishima yet-to-be-an event. If it is fair to say the industry were downplaying events (Apparently in spite of the level of naional, international, and industrial scrutiny they were under), perhaps it is also fair to claim that anti-nuclear activists were exaggerating the problems?

    Criticisms that nuclear facilities are unsafe and outdated are irrelevant when used as an argument against building new power stations from new designs, incorporating 30+ years of operating nuclear power plants. This is a luxury that plants operating today did not have in their design stages.

    Also, there’s something up with the syntax in the fifth paragraph.

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