WINNING THE POLITICAL DEBATE ON

NUCLEAR POWER

ENA CONFERENCE, 25.11.04

 

INTRODUCTION

 

Ladies and gentlemen, can I say what an honour it is to be asked to take part in this important conference.  What I want to do is to look at the current state of nuclear power in Europe, the challenges facing it and what must be done to ensure its long term future through the eyes of a politician.

 

As a politician I believe the problems and the solutions for nuclear power are not technical or environmental but political ones.  It's the politicians who will decide the future of the nuclear industry on every continent.

 

But first let me give some information about myself and the region I come from. I represent the North West Region of England.  An area of about 7 million people, having the cities of Liverpool and Manchester within it, having also the Lake District – England’s most beautiful National Park, and also having a significant Nuclear Power Industry.

 

We have in the region, two nuclear reactors at Heysham, the headquarters of BNFL at Risley and Daresbury, Capenhurst where uranium is enriched, Springfields (not the same as in the Simpsons) where nuclear fuels rods are made, Barrow-in-Furness where the ships that transport nuclear material around the world are based and last but certainly not least, we have Sellafield, which covers waste management, reprocessing and fuel recycling.

 

At the Sellafield site can also be found Calder Hall, the first fully commercial nuclear power station in the world, and Drigg, the low level waste repository.

 

In total there are about 14,500 direct jobs involved with thousands more dependent on the industry.

 

Cynics would say that as a politician, I only support the nuclear power industry because it plays such a role in my region.  They would be wrong, I supported the industry before I represented any of these places and supported it when at the time I represented a coal-mining area.  I did so because of my career background.  I was a Marine Engineer, qualified to Chief Engineer level, and as a power-generating engineer, I think nuclear power is fantastic technology.

 

I also supported it from an environmental point of view and have done so long before Kyoto.  I want my grandchildren and their grandchildren to live in a world which is clean and fit to live in.  Let’s get one thing straight, the Greens or Greenpeace don’t have a monopoly on caring about the environment on this beautiful planet, yet somehow they seemed to have hi-jacked that agenda.

 

That same engineer in me also thinks that burning natural gas to generate electricity is nothing short of a criminal act.  Such a pure source of energy should be used for direct consumption, not reduced in efficiency terms by converting it to electricity.

 

Unfortunately not many politicians are Engineers, so I loose out on that one and wouldn't convince anyone using the technical argument.

 

SETTING THE SCENE

 

I also believe that if we want future generations to have the same luxury of access to electricity that we have today then you can’t do that without nuclear power.

 

Yet there are those who think we can.  They portray the nuclear industry as dangerous, at the same time they don’t want more CO2 emitted into the atmosphere nor do they want the physical environment damaged, (so we can’t build dams and use hydro-electricity or barrages for tidal power).  They believe wind, wave and sun can meet all their needs.

 

I believe we should encourage more re-newable energy sources, we should use wind and waves and solar power, but located in the right places.  Some of the most beautiful areas of the UK are blighted by the sight of wind farms.  Put them out to sea, certainly, but don’t put them in rural areas.

 

But whilst I encourage more re-newables let’s be clear, solar power will never run the Brussels metro system, and if you were going into hospital for an operation you would not like to ask the surgeon is the wind blowing today.

 

It's interesting to note that both the Irish and the Danes, who have led the field in wind power, realise that they can't go above 20% without affecting their base load. It's also interesting to note that the Danes, even with all their wind turbines, are still amongst the biggest producers of CO2 since 80% of their electricity is coal fired.

 

We should also go for more efficiency.  Energy saving has been a major theme of the European Parliament ever since the oil crisis of the 1970’s.  The budget committee vote through every year funds for such research and programmes.  However, it’s ironic that whilst each household can become more energy efficient consumption by society as a whole continues to increase.  The fact is that as energy efficiency leads to reduced costs, so the homeowner buys more (energy or appliances) and the manufacturer increases production.

 

In my own region there is a falling population but the number of households is increasing.  Changing lifestyles demand more and more; more TV sets, DVD’s, air conditioning units, electrically operated devices like garage doors, and they all need electricity.

 

SOME FUNDAMENTALS

 

Energy, like fresh water, is fundamental to the quality of life, and people in our affluent Western societies take both for granted.

Those who advocate the closure of nuclear power stations had better determine whether present and future generations really want a life with less electricity.  It would be a good experiment to stop production of electricity from all nuclear power stations for a week, even for a day, and see what would be the reaction of the general public.

 

It would be the same reaction as cutting the water supply for 2 or 3 days each week.

 

Take a look at the countries which have the lowest consumption per capita, or the countries where consumption has fallen because of the collapse of industry, then ask your citizens if that is where they want to live or how they want to live. The Greens may want zero growth and the horse and cart to be the accepted mode of transport, but I can't convince my voters to follow that route.

 

The facts are that demand for electrical energy is rising and will continue to rise throughout the world.  As economic growth increases so does electricity consumption; as population increases so does the demand for electricity; and if we want to give the 2 billion fellow human beings on this planet, who are not connected to a commercial everyday supply, some hope of escaping poverty and hunger then they need access to electricity.

 

NEED FOR STRONG POLITICIANS

 

The problem we have in Europe is that too many people of influence ignore all of the above.  Nowadays it’s cool to push the Green agenda and its at times like these that we need strong, honest politicians to get people to recognise reality and not live in some Disneyland pretending that everything will be okay.

 

Too many politicians run scared of opinion polls and won’t stick their necks out if they think that Nuclear is an unpopular vote loser.  But politicians have to lead from the front at times and influence public opinion and now is one of those times when it comes to energy needs for the immediate and long-term future.

 

Way back in 1990 a group of workers from Sellafield were in the EP and we were trying to arrange for them to meet MEPs. Very few Labour members wanted to be seen with them. When Gordon Adam, Ken Collins and I went for a dinner that evening, they said "Thanks for being here, we realise that there are no Brownie points for supporting Nuclear in the Labour Party." They recognised we weren't doing it for Brownie points, but because we believed in it.

 

We now have a situation where ageing nuclear power stations are facing closure and decommissioning and some strategic decisions need to be taken as to how to replace them.  If they are not taken then the California scenario will begin to appear rapidly across Europe.

 

Or we put more CO2 into the atmosphere.  Trying to tell the Greens this is like talking to a brick wall.  Once their mind is made up facts only confuse the issue.  That also applies to their friends in the media who find every opportunity to print bad news nuclear stories and swallow every press release ever put out by the anti nuclear lobby.

 

At one time the opponents of nuclear power used the issue of waste management as their key weapon, now they have another in the risk of terrorist attacks following September 11.  Let’s be clear about the former, it’s a political problem not a technical one.  As for the latter, the industry has to demonstrate the safety of the plants.

 

If we reacted that way to terrorist threats then not only would there be no NPPs, but no high-rise buildings, no chemical or oil plants.  If terrorists wanted maximum civilian casualties they would kill more people by crashing a plane into a packed football stadium than into an NPP.

 

But on the issue of waste management, that is the one area above all others, the general public need convincing on.

 

PUBLIC ACCEPTANCE

 

In a recent visit to the Dukovany NPP in the Czech republic one of the things that impressed me was the effort that goes into getting the general public to accept nuclear power.  Public opinion is over 80%, but many say there has been a 20% increase since the Austrians began objecting to Temelin.

 

And a recent opinion poll in Sweden showed 80% supportive of nuclear.

 

And that is the lesson that politicians need to learn.  There is an education process to be done and perceptions in some countries need to be changed.  Even if we are up against the likes of Greenpeace.  In the English language its hard to dislike the words green and peace (and I am not sure how that will come across in interpretation), and young people easily identify with green and peaceful causes.

This is a rich organisation, accountable to no-one, masters of propaganda, stunts and media manipulation.  In fact they have to be congratulated on their achievements.

 

However, some Greens are aware of the urgency of the situation, as you know, James Lovelock, the Green Guru and best know for his Gaia theory on sustainability makes a powerful case for nuclear power largely on the ground that renewable resources could not be introduced quickly enough to avert a greenhouse catastrophe resulting from the use of fossil fuels.

 

Within the European Parliament now, with enlargement, there are more pro-nuclear MEPs. We have formed an inter-group known as the 'Forum for the Future of Nuclear Energy', which is well supported. For our first discussion last week, Bruno Comby of 'Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy' gave a presentation along the James Lovelock line and it was excellent. He made the point that the earth and atmosphere have become a trash can in which we dump our waste, millions and millions of tonnes of it. Nuclear energy is the only solution to stop this.

 

This message needs to be broadcast loud and clear in Green movements.

 

Without wanting to sound alarmist the reality is that this is an issue about the future of the planet and we need to begin initiatives that can convince a doubtful public of our cause, or future generations will suffer the consequences of this generation's actions or inactions.

 

Thankfully all is not lost and there is still plenty of good news.  A couple of years ago, the European Commission published the results of an EU  opinion poll aimed at assessing how members of the public view the subject of radioactive waste and related issues.  And don't forget it's the issue of how to deal with the waste that will convince a sceptical public about the need to support nuclear power.

 

The polls showed that most Europeans believe that nuclear power should remain an option for electricity production, if all the waste can be safely managed and we shouldn't leave the task of dealing with it to future generations.

 

It also showed a real lack of public awareness about how radioactive waste is managed.

 

There were major differences in perceptions from one EU state to another.  Some 16,000 EU citizens in a representative cross-section of the public were interviewed in October and November, 2001.  This meant that the survey was carried out immediately after the events of September 11, when general fears over nuclear installations and especially of radioactive waste disposals was expected to be higher than usual.

 

The survey revealed that the most trusted sources of information were independent scientists and NGOs. Not politicians. Three times as many people believe these sources than nuclear industry (10%) or the EU (11%).   Eight out of ten people describe themselves as “not very well informed” or “not at all well informed” on radiation waste, a similar figure to three years ago.

 

Only 19% say the nuclear industry is open in providing information on radiation waste.   Over one third do not know that nuclear power has the “advantage of producing less greenhouse gas emission than other energy sources”.   It's about time we began making sure they got the right information.

 

In today’s world of scientific developments, too many people don’t trust the Nuclear Power Industry or the politicians.  It applies not only to nuclear technology but to other issues also.  In the European Parliament we see month in and month out attempts by the Greens and their allies to vote against issues such as stem cell research in health care or the case of GMOs in food production.  In fact the European Parliament is quite a battleground for scientific development.

 

So we have a task of getting the message across to a sceptical public that nuclear power cannot be ignored.   The message to the nuclear industry is that you must have confidence to challenge misinformation that your opponents put out to the media.  With 438 reactors worldwide and a further 38 under construction, this is not a dying industry.

 

Challenge the Greens, the media, the doubters in language they can understand – the ‘let’s switch off for 24 hours’ language.  Language that says –

 

Nuclear power is safe

We also need an International Regulatory Authority that can ensure international safety standards are met at all nuclear stations.

 

Those who believe in the nuclear industry have to be bold enough to face the challenges of the modern world.  If we care about the welfare of future generations on this planet then we can’t walk away from this industry.  It’s our duty as politicians and scientists to give it our full support.  If we do I’m convinced history will be thankful that we did so.

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