Recent media reports have claimed that Friends of the Earth UK (FoE-UK) has changed its position on nuclear power. The reports followed a September 10 BBC interview with FoE-UK's campaigns director Craig Bennett.1
The BBC's Roger Harrabin reported: "Today a [FoE-UK] spokesman revealed the group's new stance – it's no longer against nuclear power in principle although it still opposes new nuclear power stations because they're too expensive and, intriguingly, take too long to build." Harrabin called it "a huge and controversial shift."2
Bennett said on the BBC: "The biggest risk of nuclear power is that it takes far too long to build, it's far too costly, and distorts the national grid by creating an old model of centralised power generation." Asked about the "risks from radiation", Bennett responded: "Of course, there are real concerns about radiation, particularly around nuclear waste… but I think it is important how this debate has shifted down the years. The real concern now is how we get on fast with de-carbonising our electricity supply. It's very clear that nuclear can't deliver big changes fast. That's a huge risk if we're trying to tackle climate change. With renewable technologies and with energy efficiency we could be making a difference within three or four years."1,3
The BBC's claims were in large part a beat-up. Bennett said FoE-UK had always deployed a suite of arguments against nuclear power, with the emphasis shifting over time.3 Big deal.
The BBC and some other contributors to the debate juxtaposed 'in principle' or 'ideological' opposition to nuclear power with 'evidence based' or 'pragmatic' or 'functional' opposition, with the implication that in-principle or ideological opposition is evidence-free. It's not clear how or why anyone could or should oppose nuclear power without supporting evidence.
FoE-UK executive director Andy Atkins responded with a press release: "Friends of the Earth has not changed its position on nuclear power. We remain firmly opposed to it and continue to strongly promote a transition to an energy system based on energy efficiency and our abundant resource of renewable energy, which is getting cheaper to exploit by the day."4
Academic Dr David Toke said: "Today's BBC4 report that Friends of the Earth has become pro-nuclear has been quickly denounced by FOE themselves. But this reflects a growing recent trend to target green groups to get them at least to be neutral on the subject of investments or new research into nuclear power if not outrightly pro-nuclear. The Green Party of England and Wales was the target of a well prepared effort to shift their position last Saturday [September 6], although of course the pro-nuclear amendment to the Party's policy was rejected by an overwhelming majority."5
The BBC's beat-up regarding FoE-UK is not the first time an environment group's position on nuclear power has been misrepresented. For example in 2009−10 the World Nuclear Association heavily promoted a dishonest article claiming that Greenpeace UK had changed its stance on nuclear power.6
Notwithstanding the BBC's beat-up, it should be said that FoE-UK does not have an active anti-nuclear campaign (although some local groups may campaign on nuclear issues). Moreover, the organisation's position on nuclear power could be considered half-pregnant − opposing new nuclear power reactors but not calling for the closure of existing reactors. Thus FoE-UK (presumably) favours a transition to a nuclear-free UK over a period of several decades as operating reactors are gradually closed.
Bennett later said: "Our position has now been "refreshed". We don't want to close down the UK nuclear industry right away – that would create far too many problems for energy supply over coming decades. But we still very much oppose nuclear new-build. The biggest issue is cost."3
In response to a query from the World Information Service on Energy, FoE-UK said: "With regard to existing nuclear power stations, we oppose the provision of subsidies to the industry, as it is a mature technology that has already received decades of subsidy. Subsidies should be used to support the development of new technologies, not to prop up old technologies. However, we do not call for the premature closure of existing nuclear power plants. Friends of the Earth has done its own modelling using a model developed by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), the 2050 Pathways calculator. This shows that Britain can meet its greenhouse gas emissions target and the 2030 decarbonisation goal recommended by the Committee on Climate Change without building new nuclear plants, as well as deliver high levels of energy security."
Neil Crumpton writes in The Ecologist: "Harrabin goes on to say, and make something out of, a change in FOE's stance on closing existing nuclear reactors. ... I never made any such calls in all the years I worked for FOE. I was FOE Cymru's specialist energy campaigner in Wales from about the mid 1990's and then the main anti-nuclear campaigner (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) between about 2005-2010. We had a pragmatic attitude and focussed our limited energy and funding on more winnable campaigns. So any shift regarding 'closure calls' would have been at least two decades ago and could not be portrayed as a recent shift or part of a refreshed 'less strongly anti-nuclear' stance. And if FOE had made any significant 'shift' or change in policy on nuclear power (or any other campaign area) the proposed change would have had to be submitted as a written motion to the annual conference, won the Local Groups' vote and received the agreement of the Board."7
Crumpton says the BBC should refresh its policy on corporate links – two BBC Trust figureheads are paid advisers to EdF: acting chair Diane Coyle and former chair Lord Patten.
1. BBC interview: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04g8lng
2. Adam Vaughan, 10 Sept 2014, 'Friends of the Earth denies dropping nuclear power opposition',
3. Roger Harrabin, 12 Sept 2014, 'Friends of the Earth's shift on nuclear should be celebrated, not denied', www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2014/sep/12/friends-of-the-earths-s...
4. FoE-UK, 10 Sept 2014, 'Radio 4 report on nuclear power',
FoE-UK detailed briefing paper, August 2013, 'Why Friends of the Earth opposes plans for new nuclear reactors',
Mike Childs (FoE-UK), 2 Aug 2013, 'A hard-headed look at nuclear power', www.foe.co.uk/news/nuclear_40884