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The Heart of the Matter


This is by far the most interesting and challenging debate (over the course of eight months) about nuclear power I have had to date
 

George’s note: This debate began with an email I sent to Theo, which I did not intend to publish. Theo wrote a powerful response and posted the correspondence on his site. I then replied, and Theo has now answered my second letter. Here is the whole debate.
 

I have had many discussions about nuclear power since changing my mind about the technology: by correspondence, online, in person and in the broadcast media. But this has been, by a long way, the best. Unlike so many others, Theo Simon has directly addressed the points I have made, rather than attacking me for things I have not said (see this for a prize example of the latter tendency). He has engaged seriously with the dilemmas we confront. In other words, he has listened before responding: I wish more people would. Just as tellingly, he has remained courteous and friendly throughout: a rare enough quality in online debates. I hope I have responded in the same spirit.
 

 

From George To Theo, 21st February 2012

Dear Theo,

I hope you are all thriving. I’m writing because I saw that you have been campaigning to prevent a replacement for the nuclear power station at Hinkley, and I think that is the wrong thing to do.

It is true that we could replace all current power generation with renewables. But it would take longer and cost more than if we were to sustain nuclear power as part of the mix. As you know, we are already on the margins of possibility of avoiding more than two degrees of global warming. Replacing coal and gas in time to prevent runaway warming is a tough enough challenge for any country. Doing so at the same time as replacing nuclear power is nigh-on impossible. I hope you are aware of the dire news from Germany, in terms of the massive contribution to emissions the shutdown will make, despite Germany’s efforts at efficiency and new investment in renewables: if not, you can follow the links in the article I’ve appended below. Now we see a similar disaster emerging in Japan, as it switches from this low-carbon option to coal and LNG.

I admit that none of our options for generating electricity are good ones. I don’t like nuclear power, and I would be happier if we could do without it, but I know that if we shut down the UK’s nuclear plants and don’t replace them, the gap will almost certainly be filled by coal and gas, greatly increasing greenhouse gas emissions. In fact it is quite likely to be filled by shale gas.

Yes, we could and should cut total energy use. But should we cut it in order to help get rid of fossil fuels, or cut it to help get rid of nuclear power? We certainly can’t do both by these means.

Faced with a choice between the two options, there is not a shadow of doubt in my mind that fossil fuel is the worst. I don’t need to spell out to you the impacts of climate change, or of coal extraction, or of the local pollution associated with coal and to a lesser extent gas burning. Beside these the potential impacts of nuclear power are tiny. Coal kills more people when it goes right than nuclear power does when it goes wrong. In fact coal kills more people every week than nuclear power has in the entire history of its deployment.

The uncomfortable fact is that the opponents of nuclear power (among whom I numbered until recently) have justified their position with levels of bullshit and junk science very similar to those used by the climate change deniers, and Stop Hinkley is no exception. When I wrote to Katy Attwater, expressing my concerns about the quality of the scientific evidence on their site, she told me “I have no faith in the Scientific peer review process as it currently works.” Just like James Delingpole, David Bellamy etc when it comes to climate science. I’ve attached our correspondence for you to see. I have to say it made my heart sink.

Theo, we need you too much for the battles that need to be fought. God knows there are enough of them. But the inevitable result of this one, if it succeeds, will be to raise our greenhouse gas emissions, help threaten life on earth and compromise the life chances both of future generations and of people living now in countries poorer than our own. That is not what you or any of us began campaigning for. But as the results of both the German and Japanese experiments demonstrate, it’s now clear that this will be the legacy of anti-nuclear campaigning. Please think again before you counteract all the good work you’ve done on other issues.

With love from George

From Theo to George, 29th March 2012

Hi George,

and thank you for taking the time to write. I appreciate your commitment to getting our energy policy right and to bringing your friends along with you.

I was unable to receive and then easily respond to your mail after you sent it on Feb 21st as I was living at the Hinkley occupation camp, then preparing for a High Court case, and then dealing with the eviction and it’s aftermath. However, I think this is a welcome opportunity to contrast our positions around nuclear new-build, so I am writing now.

It’s ironic that you wrote to me about my involvement in our Somerset campaign against the proposed Hinkley C at a time when we were trying so hard to raise national media awareness. Normally you would have been my journalist of choice for amplifying the story, as it has a lot of the elements you might have liked to get your teeth into: little people vs. big business; corruption of the planning process to favour corporate interests; democratic decisions prejudiced and mis-directed by government officials; lack of accountability and transparency; flagrant disregard for processes which protect our natural heritage; media monopolisation, and of course, bribery.

But I didn’t think you would want to champion this particular case because the outcome of the whole sorry process is set to be… a new nuclear power station! And since you have already decided, ahead of ongoing public consultation and the IPC examination now in progress, that Hinkley C must be built, any efforts to challenge or interrupt that process must therefore be “the wrong thing”.

I can give you the benefit of the doubt and guess that you aren’t aware of the detailed issues here on the ground. Your legitimate pre-occupation with cutting CO2 emissions – which is in itself welcome – has led to the exclusion of other important concerns from your thinking about a new-nuclear future. The process in West Somerset has now brought those real-life concerns into sharp relief.

Interestingly, some of the best and most supportive people who passed through our brief occupation camp were not anti-nuclear per se, and a few of them had been persuaded by your recent arguments. But they were people who value the democratic safeguards which limit corporate land-grabbing and environmental destruction in Britain – safeguards which the new planning process has now fatally undermined. From their point of view, what is happening at Hinkley is a test-bed for the whole “fast-track” planning regime and what it could mean for projects in other parts of Britain – road-builds, runways or any other project favoured by a government that justifies new-nuclear by its commitment to reducing carbon emissions (!)

I don’t want to pretend I hadn’t already come down on the side of the antis when I joined the occupation. After some re-evaluation in the light of yours and Mark’s recent articles, I had. Beguiling as your recent contributions about re-assessing danger levels, possible new designs for nuclear reactors or the need for strong regulation of the industry have been, experience on the ground in Stogursey Parish has only confirmed my suspicion as to what a “nuclear renaissance” will look like in reality.

After a lengthy pre-application process, the IPC has just embarked on its final 6-month examination of the EDF application to build 2 new reactors at Hinkley point. After this period of hearings and written evidence, the panel of commissioners will make a recommendation and a secretary of state will make the final decision. Regardless of your own preference for nuclear, I assume you accept that for this process to be meaningful it must include the possibility that EDF’s application will be rejected. If not, then you would have to accept that we now live in a planning dictatorship and that the whole IPC process is in fact a charade at public expense. But if we assume that the consultation is genuine, then clearly by any normal standards of fairness and objectivity it would be wrong for major construction to commence before the permission has been granted.

But bizarrely that is exactly what has happened here in West Somerset. In the next month or so, apparently with a special licence to clear ground during the nesting season, EDF’s contractors will commence the erasure of 400 acres of West Somerset coastland, including the habitats of red-list species, skylark breeding grounds, bat roosts and the little stand of West Quantocks oak woodland, not to mention a place of much archaeological interest and recreational amenity. All this will be demolished, felled, stripped and levelled before EDF have obtained planning permission to build.

It’s an unprecedented decision – and a terrifying precedent. First, get a National Policy statement in favour of your construction project – this means you can then rule out all further discussion about the project’s technology, its impact on future generations, it’s toxicity and safety, and whether we even need it. Even the people whose district it is going to be in may not consider these matters once it is a National Policy.

Next, slice up your planning application into smaller bits. Apply to the District Council to start the earthworks – since it isn’t structural it doesn’t need to go to the IPC, and since the project before the IPC will be in line with National Policy anyway, you can probably assume it will get the go ahead and rip up those TPOs now. This has the advantage that the environmental impact will be irrelevant by the time they make their recommendation: it will have already happened. Rare habitats? – What rare habitats? The other advantage is that by the time it gets to the secretary of state the site in question will have been reduced to a series of bare platforms, ramps, pits and trenches – it will seem almost bloody-minded not to grant EDF permission to finish the job. Of course, there is a very real chance that they will pull out – as Eon and Npower have just done – for financial reasons (or even because of a change of government in the French elections). They may well pull out after the worst damage has been done.

So in the case of Hinkley C you’ll end up either with an expensive and carbon intensive trashed building site, or with 2 new nuclear reactors being installed, and a new pile of radioactive waste being prepared, without any consideration having been given to either the ecological impact of the construction or to the health and safety impacts of the process itself on local communities. As you yourself prophesied in a piece about the government’s draft National Planning Policy Framework last year “it will be almost impossible to resist development, however destructive or detrimental it might be….everything will be permitted unless there is a powerful reason why it should not be, and the powerful reasons have been ruled out in advance”. (Terra Nullius 5/7/11)

The powerful reasons in this case were presented by a host of conservation, heritage and ecological bodies, parish councils and local residents. None of them believed for a minute that the damage could ever be ameliorated or repaired once the preparatory work had been done. EDF’s pledges to do just that if the project falls through were described as “ludicrous”. (Exactly how this restoration will be achieved is something that EDF have promised to work out later, once they have got the destruction under way). Nonetheless, most District Councillors decided to bow to the stick of National Policy, follow the carrot of local job creation and handouts, and turn a blind eye to the skylarks.

The happy compliance of the West Somerset population with this development is an EDF myth however. The most common description I’ve heard of the process locally is “steam-roller”. Most people I met in local villages while we camped there agreed with the argument we put – that either EDF’s preparatory works are an obscene act of negligence, or the entire planning process is now a sham whose outcome is, as they say in Stogursey “a done deal”.

But if you want to build a nuclear power station, best build it where they’ve already got used to it. West Somerset is a community adapted by 40 years of experience to life in the shadow of a toxic industry, resigned to it’s council-issued Potassium Iodide tablets, trying to make the best of a bad job. It’s also a community where the dominance of the public space by EDF and the atom industry is so total it has the appearance of a company town. Several local rags would collapse if they now had to stop being EDF free-sheets. Locals are compromised, not only by the desperate fears over jobs – which of course could be provided for in many other ways too – but also by their dependency on EDF handouts, which are really a kind of corporate social bribe.

One man told us he would like to come up to our camp, but he daren’t be seen supporting us as he was a governor of a school set to receive several grand from the developer. In this way, cuts in the social budget lay the way open for a corporation to become an indispensable benefactor to a community. The people of Stogursey are left cowed, muted and confused. “Don’t tell anyone else in the village I was here” says the woman who brings us a generator to charge batteries. I tell her that’s what they all say. They secretly wish us well, but they’ve given up. The best they can hope for is the little concessions they can wring out of EDF. Rumours of corruption and manipulation abound, but no one wants to go public.

It’s that strange atmosphere of fear and paranoia that always seems to hover around the nuclear industry. It hovers around the faceless, box-ticking, bullying EDF as well. Of course, as you pointed out in your piece “Corporate Power? No Thanks!” last July, and as I discovered at the Vestas wind turbine factory occupation – and even in dispute with the BBC – heartless manipulation is a quality shared by most corporations. Although you candidly admitted that “… In most parts of the world the nuclear operators remain secretive, unaccountable and far too close to government” you went on to conclude that “There is no contradiction between favouring the machines and opposing the machinations”.

But I think you miss an essential point about the nuclear machine here: it’s not just its history as “a by-product of nuclear weapons research” that has left it with a few old creases we need to iron out. Its guardedness arises implicitly from the technology itself. Because it is a prime target for terror, a prime source for lethal military material, and so potentially hazardous that all activity around it must be tightly and carefully controlled, it is a process that demands impenetrable security, armed policing and authorised-only access. The paradox is that, as one of the most uniquely toxic industrial processes we have ever developed, the greater good requires that there is total public scrutiny of its affairs – but the world is not safe enough for that, so we must rely on unaccountable self-regulation instead.

Now give a manipulative, greedy corporation a financial interest in that process and watch what happens. Here is EDF being handed a prime piece of our natural heritage on an NPS plate; here is David Cameron’s office cajoling District Councillors to pressure a recalcitrant land-owner into selling her land: here is the County evacuations officer, the aptly named Mr Hurry, visiting our camp to hand out EDF corporate calendars with the Potassium Iodide tablets; and here are the legal papers served on our camp with evidence supplied to EDF by the District Council Press Officer. (Oh yes, and here are EDF extending their Licensed Nuclear Site boundary without permission from the ONR, just so they can deter protesters). I think before you demand solemnly, (but to be honest irrelevantly in terms of the influence you wield), that “A new generation of nuclear power stations should be built only with unprecedented scrutiny and transparency” (ibid) you need to take a reality check. It’s not happening here in Somerset. Our nuclear furnaces are being built and will be administered by a suited snake-tongued gang of legal weasels who even the Somerset and Avon Constabulary have come to despise. But that’s ok; they’ll have their own police force won’t they? – The Civil Nuclear Constabulary, soon to be merged with the MOD police. “It is through such collusion that accidents happen”. You said it.

But it’s not just through collusion. Accidents happen anyway. They just do. I’d love you to have a head to head with a technical expert like the retired high-ranking Hinkley B engineer who came to our camp. From a far deeper knowledge base than mine or yours he’d explain the shortcomings of the EPR design, and tell you how contractors driven by deadlines and financial pressures inevitably build mistakes into complex systems. Actually you could chat with any ex-workers, from this or any other large hazardous industrial process, and get all the hair-raising insights you need into the inevitable foibles of human behaviour, compounded by the capitalist bottom line, which make some processes just too risky to pursue.

I see that Mark (Lynas) has been using the term “green luddite” about people like me – a compliment I am not worthy to bear having never risked either a soldiers bullets, state execution or life-exile as they did for their cause. But this is an appropriate time to recall the words of one such Ludd, 200 years ago this year, that we must “put down all machinery injurious to the commonality”. We don’t need to pick nuclear up. We know it is one of the most hazardous industrial processes we have yet stumbled upon and that the waste product will remain hazardous into future generations. Just the imposed and non-negotiable responsibility for looking after that nuclear fire once we’ve lit it will be injurious to them. So also, on an emotional level I think, will be the knowledge that their ancestors just couldn’t be arsed to get more creative with meeting our energy needs than leaving them to pick up the tab. In the meantime we have to hope that it won’t turn out “injurious” to us.

I do understand of course that, in the light of it’s climate changing effect, releasing CO2 through burning fossil fuels is “injurious to the commonality” on another scale altogether. I have campaigned for 2 decades on cutting emissions. But if it turned out that asbestos dust had a temperature decreasing quality I still wouldn’t favour spraying it in the air. Other elements haven’t suddenly become less toxic to humans because of climate change. There is a constant pressure in capitalism for lowering toxicity thresholds, which makes the current green revisionism promoted by people like Mark very welcome in some quarters. But we should defend lines drawn in public and environmental safety as gains in our evolution towards a rational society. In my opinion, the boundaries drawn around my behaviour by the duty of care and the precautionary principle that stems from it are in line with the biological interests of my species and with maintaining the integrity of the biosphere. In other words they are as inviolable as the 7 planetary boundaries identified by the Stockholm Resilience Centre (and used by Mark in “The God Species” as the springboard for his own reactionary ideas). That means I have to create ways to live within them and still thrive. That means, like it or lump it, I’m going to have to do it without nuclear.

As far as I can tell, you don’t think that’s impossible, but you have given up hope that it’s feasible or likely in the time-frame you believe is necessary. That has put you in the contradictory position of on the one hand decrying the existing “monstrous pile of nuclear waste” (Nuclear vs nuclear vs nuclear, 2/2/12) and on the other calling on me to stop opposing the Hinkley C development so that they can make another monstrous pile of fresh hot waste which will need to be stored undisturbed on the edge of the sea for several centuries at least.

You have explained several times now that you favour the deployment of new nuclear reactors which you believe could consume the existing waste legacy as fuel. Some people question the feasibility of this technology and I don’t know enough to comment on it, but I would encourage you to continue this line of research, as a supportable method for dealing with our toxic legacy is still needed.

But good or bad, this is not the technology on offer at Hinkley C. What we are opposing here is the same old waste pile, the same old lengthy and expensive decommissioning, the same old secrecy and state collusion, the same old “off site emergency” hazard, and potentially the same old thyroid cancer for my daughter, 25 miles away. It only looks different because it has been re-invigorated by the fear of climate-change, modern propaganda techniques, the ageing of the anti-nuclear generation, and the lack of any democratic platform for opposing specific plans on the ground.

It has also been aided by environmental authors like yourself whose public promotions of nuclear have disorientated and disheartened the green movement and the left, while finding a willing audience among the broader middle-class who welcome a chance to salve their guilt about energy-intensive lifestyles with the re-assuring news that “apparently nuclear’s ok now, and it’s the only way to solve climate change”.

I know that isn’t the pure message you wanted to convey. But what we write, just like the technology we devise, has a political and social context which determines how it will be used and by whom. You advocate an “energy mix”, (as do the energy investors with broad portfolios), which in Britain includes 10 new nuclear power stations. You believe that if we don’t take that course then the money will go into carbon burning, not a renewables revolution, energy efficiencies, reduction of waste and false needs and a massive investment in R&D for alternative energy production. But that’s a political decision.

The renewables revolution route is one which had growing social traction after COP15 and still does, even in the hostile environment of public spending cuts and a triumphalist nuclear lobby. If we do not choose nuclear AND we drive rigourously to meet carbon reduction targets, that will simply apply more pressure on the renewables sector and other innovators to deliver. Partly this can be market-driven, and the diversity of the sector makes brilliant creative innovations far more likely than they are in the monolithic nuclear industry. But it will only be possible with massive public investment and direction, and that raises the unavoidable issue of who is controlling the wealth and resources.

At COP15 I concluded that capitalism (yes Mark, I’m an unashamed anti-capitalist!) could not respond effectively to the challenge of climate change, because it’s primary motive will always be profit and competitive advantage, even where planetary well-being is concerned. At the very least, a large degree of state intervention and socialised initiatives are needed, and this in turn requires a big degree of political control being exerted over capital, which may or may not be possible. It’s that uncertainty which is the difficult bit. I don’t think that you believe we can find the political will or the social base for a meaningful green revolution to occur in time to reduce UK emissions by other means than re-embracing nuclear. I also think that you have forgotten that you yourself are a subjective factor in determining the political landscape, as am I. What is necessary is to encourage and empower a left democratic social movement which is steeped in ecological understanding.

Your current commitment to nuclear in Britain cuts across that agenda, and to paraphrase your email to me, potentially undoes all your other good work.

Each time you write something like “I don’t like nuclear power, but…” it sounds like defeatism. It sounds like you have decided it’s better to run with a toxic solution that doesn’t challenge the existing social order than to wait for a social movement with real political power to develop. I can really understand that perspective. My dad reluctantly held it at the end of his life even though he spent the eighties resisting Hinkley C.

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