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Haunted by history: nuclear new build in Britain

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
East Midlands Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

Part I: Shaping the Deal

In January 2008, Gordon Brown’s cabinet formally decided to permit private businesses to build new nuclear power stations in England and Wales, the Scottish executive having already refused permission. Politically, there was nothing surprising about the news. Key decisions had been made well before 2008. Tony Blair, as Prime Minster, had declared for new nuclear as early as July 2004, trailing the Bush administration by two years. Brown himself had come out decisively in favor of new nuclear to the Confederation of British Industries in November 2007 and also to the G8.

Institutionally a key turning point was the Energy Review, initiated by Blair in 2005 and issued by the Department of Trade and Industry in 2006. The Review revised the findings of the Department of the Environment’s Energy White Paper of 2003, which had been critical of nuclear economics and concerned about the waste issue. The 2006 Review argued that new nuclear had a role to play in the future ‘energy mix’ in the light of the imperatives of climate change and energy security. It must, however, be run by the private sector, without subsidy, and with companies bearing the cost of decommissioning and ‘their full share of long-term waste management costs’. Government, however, would provide a framework: planning procedures would be simplified and speeded up and regulative and other issues extensively consulted upon.

The Review also noted ‘solutions’ to the problems of inherited nuclear waste. In April 2005 after a series of scandals at the reprocessing and storage complex at Sellafield in West Cumbria and the near bankruptcy of the main nuclear generator British Electric, a new public non-departmental body was created – the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency (NDA). The NDA took temporary charge of 19 nuclear sites, including Sellafield, the first generation Magnox power stations and Dounreay a failed experimental fast-breeder reactor in the north of Scotland. In 2003, the government also set up a Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) to make recommendations on the best way to manage high-level waste. Its interim recommendations had already argued for ‘deep geological disposal’.

This review set the guidelines of government policy right up to the present:

  • private enterprise (implying further privatization)
  • dependence on corporate decision-making and financial markets for commencing nuclear new build (and even deciding its extent)
  • eagerness to ease the way of the industry by changing planning laws and by other forms of support as long as they could evade the label - ‘subsidy’

Within this framework corporations and government could negotiate the details, which, of course, were critical.

It seems likely that by January 2008, after a particularly intense period of industry lobbying, a more specific agreement was reached with leading energy companies. This included the possible underpinning of the price of carbon, financially supporting decommissioning and waste storage, and minimizing company liability in case of accidents. Also included was a plan to offer local communities public compensation, bribing them that is, for hosting waste storage facilities - and also perhaps for accepting new nuclear power stations. The actual work of decommissioning, managing the Sellafield complex and existing waste sites was to be undertaken by private consortia, who would bid to the NDA for limited term contracts, three years in the first instance. In some versions it would be the NDA that would run the waste facilities where companies could then lease space, a device that may eventually be used for the long-promised storage facility for high level wastes.

Although its supporters complained of delays, around January 2008 events were moving quickly. In May 2007 the government had issued its Planning White Paper, which after a rapid consultation, led to a new Planning Act in November 2008. The Act created a new procedure for major infrastructural projects - like nuclear power stations and waste depositories – that centralized decision-making and limited the scope of local planning objections. A parallel Act required providers of new nuclear plants to submit a definite technical and financial plan for decommissioning. In December 2007, the Conservative Party had withdrawn its ‘only in the last resort’ qualifications about new nuclear, a necessary political assurance for companies and investors. The Liberal Democrats, their future coalition partners, remained opposed to new nuclear up to the May 2010 General Election. In April 2009 11 sites were officially designated for new power stations. All but two were old nuclear sites, the remaining two being in the already concentrated nuclear complex – the so-called ‘Energy Coast’ - of West Cumbria. As Irish press and politicians pointed out, most were on the coast of the Irish Sea, an environment already threatened by emissions from Sellafield. In December the Labour leadership of Cumbria County Council expressed interest in hosting a high-level nuclear waste dump (and in receiving compensation).

2008 saw much trading in nuclear assets as companies jockeyed for competitive positions in the newly-created market. The NDA announced the leasing to ‘parent companies’ or subcontractors of all the Sellafield sites, plus the sale of the government’s third-share in British Energy, and even of existing stocks of plutonium and enriched uranium. In April it awarded the contract for the Drigg (Cumbria) repository for low and intermediate level waste to a multinational consortium consisting of URS Washington Division (USA), Areva (France), Studsvik (Sweden) and Serco Assurance (UK) as the ‘UK Nuclear Waste Management Ltd’. In July it gave the Sellafield Licence to ‘Nuclear Management Partners’, an overlapping consortium of URS, Areva and Amec (UK/Canada), a deal which included a surreptitious waiver of even limited liability for accidents, a decision not properly laid before the House of Commons. The deal included the Capenhurst uranium enrichment plant in Cheshire. In May Electricité de France (EDF) made its first bid for British Energy’s power stations and, importantly, its existing sites. A deal was finally signed in September for £12.5 billion (US$ 19.5 billion or 15.1 billion euro), with EDF planning four new reactors and selling off some sites and a 25% stake to Centrica, the parent company of British Gas. This Anglo-French deal, with the French state-owned company clearly in dominance, was foreshadowed by the signing of a grand ‘nuclear alliance’ between Gordon Brown and President Sarkozy during his state visit to Britain in March 2008. After Sarkozy’s visit and the EDF’s success, Gordon Brown could at last declare “new nuclear is becoming a reality’ and even, despite a massive expatriation of assets, ‘good value for the taxpayer’. The selling and buying ended with RWE planning three new reactors in Anglesey and then entering a partnership with another German energy company E.On to build on two other sites. In October 2009 a consortium of Iberdola (Spanish owners of Scottish Power), the giant French utility company GdF, and the hitherto anti-nuclear Scottish and Southern put in a bid for a new site near Sellafield. In the last months of the Labour government Lord Mandelson as Business Secretary unveiled a major loan to Sheffield Forgemasters to aid the production of large-scale castings for nuclear plants and the funding of a nuclear research and development centre in south Yorkshire, involving Rolls Royce and Westinghouse/Toshiba.

A Pause for Thought
This movement towards new nuclear in Britain has often appeared like a juggernaut, powered by government, a business-oriented civil service, and powerful energy companies committed to the nuclear route. It has seemed unstoppable by ordinary citizens, who, except in communities which hope to benefit economically, have often remained sceptical at best. This sense of powerless was even shared by many anti-nuclear campaigners, at least until the last year or two.

The confident tone and ‘unstoppable’ momentum are, however, misleading. In Part 2 of this outline (See Nuclear Monitor 715) it will be argued that launching new nuclear in Britain is haunted by the ill-success of past civil nuclear enterprises and by their material, economic and ideological legacies. ‘Haunted’ is appropriate here, for there is a constant effort to keep these negative stories out of public hearing and perhaps out of pro-nuclear consciousness. There is therefore a persistent misfit between the optimistic rhetoric and grand designs on one side and persistent ‘bad news’ on the other. Except in critical media, these stories are often split off and labelled ‘legacy’ (e.g. ‘legacy waste’) as though they have nothing to do with the present. History cannot be allowed to enter into official memory or future calculations, let alone seed a process of growth or learning. Actually, material and economic legacies actively impede the new project and undermine its credibility while also teaching salutary lessons about how not to manage our vital energy needs. This poses the question, addressed below, how was it possible for nuclear revival (however fantastic) to be pursued at all?

The Fall and Rise of Nuclear Power: Some Key Conditions
We can date the nadir of the nuclear industries to the later 1980s and 1990s. After peaks in the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, global start-ups of nuclear reactors declined rapidly to pre-boom levels by the 1990s. The suppression of knowledge about the Chernobyl disaster of April/May 1986 did not prevent the widespread growth of anti-nuclear public sentiment and a refusal by local citizens to tolerate new nuclear installations on their doorstep. Independent scientific research into long-term exposure to ionizing radiation was, and remains, very important here. At the same time the privatization of electricity generation, including nuclear, has had contradictory effects. On one side it has helped to create a powerful international corporate interest in favor of new nuclear, which can include state-owned companies (like EdF) operating in countries other than their own. Under neo-liberal globalization, privatization is often expatriation and threatens domestic political accountability. These effects are accentuated in the case of nuclear energy: once governments are committed to this very expensive project, urgent concerns for safety, carbon reduction and energy supply make them especially susceptible to corporate pressure.

At the same time, as Schneider et al. argued in 2009, privatization rendered more evident a key truth about nuclear: that it never was economically freestanding and always relied on complex and hidden forms of subsidy. As we shall see in Part 2 there is plenty of evidence in the British case for this, often a cause for scandal. Under public ownership such profligacy can be covered by explicit subsidy or disguised by ‘creative accountancy’. New nuclear now faces its sternest test – can it in fact be financed? Meanwhile, the government’s bluff is called – how can subsidy be avoided?

So why did going nuclear become a major political project for New Labour politicians around 2004, only a year after being ‘an unattractive option for new carbon-free generating capacity’? (2003 Energy White Paper) The new urgency of man-made climate change, together with concerns about the rising costs and unreliable supply of oil and gas have been levers for the pro-nuclear interest. In arguing their case, many pro-nuclear companies have turned very vividly green. It has become possible once more to split the ‘good atom’ (nuclear power saves the world!) from the ‘bad atom’ (1945 and the proliferation of nuclear weapons) despite their many linkages. It may also be that carbon trading and the likely long-term rise in fossil fuel prices has significantly adjusted the economic prospects of nuclear. However, given the difficulties of accurate prediction, much hangs on political conditions and what governments actually do.

New (as opposed to Old) Labour has made much of its changed relation to business. In policy terms this has meant adopting a version of neo-liberalism. New Labour’s version is not quite ‘Thatcherism’ but Labour leaders have nurtured a governing circle uncritically accessible to people and ideas from big business. Neo-liberal theory systematically blurs the distinctions between private and public interest and provides ethical validation for what others see as corruption. New Labour was neo-liberal but also in its own way authoritarian, minutely regulative of social life, preferring centralised direction and ‘big ideas’ in science and management. These features come together in a political modus operandi in which spin is preferred to sincerity, cosy consultations to genuine accountability, and where even parliament is bypassed. Although a House of Commons vote on new nuclear was promised in May 2008, no such vote – on the principle of new nuclear- was ever allowed.

This political setting enhanced the power of the nuclear interest that has always thrived on secrecy. There is evidence for intensive lobbying to secure the initial pro-nuclear decision and the enabling conditions. The energy companies and their public relations firms have led the lobbying. Industry bodies have also been important: the Nuclear Industry Association, representing, it says, 195 companies, and the Transatlantic Nuclear Energy Forum run by a former Labour MEP, who, in a not untypical career, left parliament in 2005 to become a director of AMEC (an international company carrying out high-value consultancy, engineering and project management services for the world's natural resources, nuclear, clean energy, water and environmental sectors). Trade unions with members in the industry and communities living next to existing power stations have played a part. In the weeks around January 2008 at least nine secret meetings were held at Downing Street with energy company executives. March 2008 saw a formidable spin operation launched in favour of the new deal: ministerial announcements, the Anglo-French summit, union meetings, warnings by industry leaders on the need for further easing and for haste.

The direction of policy shows clearly the effect of this influence. Those of us who were involved in the promised ‘consultations’ can testify to the weight of industry voices and the exclusion of critical questions. Beside, while we ‘consulted’ or objected, the companies often took action in advance of decisions. As early as November 2007, for instance, British Energy had applied for additional connections to the national energy grid for four of its existing nuclear sites. Similarly, by May 2007 consultants had already suggested nine sites for possible new stations, prompting purchases of neighboring land by some companies. In December 2007, despite an adverse legal judgment on the first part of the consultation process, a forced re-run and many complaints from experts and campaigners, the minister responsible could confidently announce ‘we have taken account of everything they said.’ The question is who were ‘they’?

It has taken time for the anti-nuclear forces to mobilize and for the tangled threads of the climate change and energy debates to be unpicked a little. 2009-2010 saw the growth of more organized opposition to new nuclear, the May general election and the defeat of New Labour. It remains to be seen what kind of bargain the industry can strike with a somewhat more sceptical and probably more business-savvy coalition, dominated as it is by public school boys and millionaires. In Part II we will look more closely at the destabilizing issues: decommissioning and waste storage, financing large and indeterminate capital costs without subsidy, and the serious health questions issues posed by developments in radiation science.

Sources (a selection): Newspapers: The Guardian, Independent on Sunday, Daily Telegraph; BBC Radio and TV News; UK Government White Papers and Departmental Reviews on Energy (Environment 2003, Trade and Industry 2006) on Nuclear Waste Management (2002) on Planning (2007); Hansard Parliamentary Debates; Paul Brown, Voodoo Economics and the Doomed Nuclear Renaissance : A Research Paper (London: Friends of the Earth n.d. [2008]); Nuclear Power in the United Kingdom 24 May 2010 accessed 24/7/2010; Mycle Schneider, Steve Thomas, Antony Froggatt, Doug Koplow, The World Nuclear Industry Status Report with particular emphasis on economics 2009 accessed 24/7/2010.
Contact: Richard Johnson, Chair East Midlands Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.