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[cdn-nucl-l] Apology for nuclear situation in Britain
Posted in the UK Independent on August 28, 2002 and at:
A fascinating story and conversion toward support for nuclear - read on!
I must own up to playing a part in the downfall of nuclear power in
Because of my actions, there has been no serious attempt to deal with
the growing problem of what to do with nuclear waste
By Michael Brown
27 August 2002
Brian Wilson, the minister for energy at the Department of Trade and
Industry, is not attending the Johannesburg earth summit. After the
recent rows about the attendance of the Environment Minister, Michael
Meacher, this is understandable. Indeed there was no suggestion that Mr
Wilson should have gone in the first place. And in any case he has other
fish to fry following the latest reports that British Energy, the
privatised nuclear electricity company, is facing bankruptcy.
Yet of all the ministers in government who have the opportunity actually
to deliver the objectives of any protocols agreed in Johannesburg, it is
Mr Wilson who may hold the answers. I have a personal confession to make
to him as to why this country consumes more fossil fuels than those at
Johannesburg might find desirable.
Back in 1985, when nuclear power was regarded as the answer to our
energy needs, the Government agency Nirex (Nuclear Industry Radioactive
Waste Executive) nominated four sites in England for the shallow
disposal of low-level radioactive waste. One of the sites selected was
on an area of land owned by the old nationalised Central Electricity
Generating Board in my constituency.
The other three sites were in constituencies represented by Conservative
government ministers - including the Attorney General and the Chief Whip
(John, now Lord, Wakeham). There was an outcry from local residents. In
my own case, property values in the area surrounding the proposed site
fell by as much as 50 per cent. I led protest groups, local authorities
and parish councils on marches, and took delegations to ministers.
Because of my lack of relative influence as a backbencher, compared to
my rivals who were ministers, I suspected that my constituency would end
up drawing the short straw. Knowing that I could not win my arguments in
the division lobbies - I was one vote out of 650 - I decided on kamikaze
action and, in a speech in the Commons, made it clear that "there would
be no nuclear waste in my constituency so long as I remain an MP."
Government ministers correctly interpreted this as meaning that I would
resign and cause a by-election should I fail to get my way. As a result,
the proposals were dropped six weeks before the 1987 general election.
Since then privatisation of all sections of the energy industry (save
for British Nuclear Fuels) has taken place and the nuclear industry has
stalled. Many have praised the stance I took on behalf of local
residents, but others have, probably correctly, accused me of being the
original Nimby (not in my back yard). The fact that my own house was
less than two miles from the site may well have had something to do with
my ability to understand the sense of local outrage.
As a consequence of my actions, there has been no serious attempt to
deal with the growing problem of what to do with nuclear waste, and the
reputation of the nuclear power industry has remained in the doldrums.
In the meantime, we have signed up to the Rio and Kyoto treaty
objectives on climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the only
way we can ever hope to meet our obligations is if we reduce our
consumption electricity generated by fossil fuel.
This is an area where the famous "joined up" government we have heard so
much about simply does not work. Mr Wilson does not have the strategic
ability to take decisions over the need for a deep-disposal facility.
One of the arguments I deployed against the waste dump in Cleethorpes
was because it was to be shallow. If it had been a deep facility, and
substantial compensation payments had been offered to the locals (which
is what happens in France, which generates 70 per cent of its power from
nuclear energy), I would have been lobbying to have the site in my
patch. Every MP has his price - and likewise his constituents. But such
decisions on disposal facilities are taken by the Department for Rural
Affairs, specifically by Mr Meacher, who is known to be less sympathetic
to nuclear power.
Mr Wilson will also need to take on the dreaded Treasury if he is to
have any hope of rescuing British Energy, short of the embarrassment of
having to bring forward contingency plans to renationalise British
Energy. One of the most bizarre decisions taken by the Government - at
the behest of the Chancellor - was to subject nuclear power to the
climate-change levy. This levy, designed to reduce the consumption of
fossil fuels by industry, loads the price of nuclear power by 0.43 pence
per kilowatt-hour. Industry is able to choose its power source, but the
inclusion of nuclear power in this levy means industry has no incentive
to switch from using fossil fuels.
The nuclear power debate in this country has been stuck since 1987, yet
it is clear that, with the ageing Magnox power stations facing
decommissioning and the need to face up to the likelihood of an energy
deficit in the years ahead, only a programme of new nuclear stations can
provide the answer. Sir Jonathon Porritt, the Prime Minister's chief
adviser on sustainable development, believes that this gap can be filled
by renewable energy sources such a wind power. He is unlikely to make a
convincing case when renewables account for less than 3 per cent of
output. Even Denmark, which has managed an impressive 20 per cent of
wind power, has decided that further progress is impossible. Meanwhile,
in Finland, the public has been educated to support the construction of
both a new nuclear station and waste disposal facility with virtually no
As Johannesburg debates the need for improved water and sanitation for
the developing countries, there will also be pressure to end the
destruction of forests in Africa and Asia. Much of the smog that hangs
over Asia in countries such as Indonesia is the result of individuals
burning wood for fires. Clearly they will need to build power stations,
which are bound to use fossil fuels.
We face the prospect that, in the short term, increased development to
benefit the third world will actually increase greenhouse gas emissions,
blowing a hole in the agreements reached at Rio and Kyoto. This is bound
to put pressure on the developed world to reduce further its power
generation by means of coal, oil and gas. The irony is that, at the very
moment that nuclear power may come to be more sympathetically regarded
by environmentalists - except Sir Jonathon - the British nuclear power
industry is facing bankruptcy.
Thus it is probably Mr Wilson, sitting alone in Whitehall this week
while his colleagues are in Johannesburg, who faces the greatest
immediate challenge as he prepares the forthcoming white paper on
energy, to be published this autumn. I shall be cheering him on, but he
needs to recognise, as his Tory predecessors did not, that bribing local
people to accept waste disposal sites will make his task far easier.
Meanwhile, my apologies to him for being the cause of this mess in the