Tom Burke’s Political Commentary: Nuclear renaissance will fail without public trust

Published in ENDS Report (Issue 412, p39), in May 2009.

The current political crisis is more than a passing storm in the weather of events that politicians endure daily. To govern successfully in a parliamentary democracy they must possess both legitimacy and authority. The authority stems from the confidence of voters that they know how to navigate the ocean of issues we confront. The legitimacy is granted to them by the choices voters make at the ballot box.

Loss of authority is not an unusual experience for governments, especially when they have been overlong in power. John Major inherited from Mrs Thatcher a government that had already lost authority. Tony Blair left little authority to Gordon Brown and he has lost even that in recent months.

But loss of legitimacy is rare. We British are a polite people and, in public at least, quite deferential. The hostile barracking given to MPs on a recent edition of BBC 1’s Question Time was shocking precisely because it was unprecedented. Not even the deep divisions over the Iraq war were able to provoke such a heartfelt display of public anger.

And the simultaneous loss of authority and legitimacy is the political equivalent of a perfect storm. It could not be happening at a worse moment. In the next 12 months the government will be faced with crucial decisions on how best to restore the economic security, deliver the energy security and ensure the climate security that will underpin Britain’s prosperity in the 21st century.

This would be difficult at the best of times. Success requires a stronger alignment between government, business and consumers than we have ever before managed without the compelling stimulus of war. Politicians must build that alignment. But the asset they most need to succeed is precisely the public trust they have just squandered with such squalid abandon.

It will not be quickly rebuilt. Trust lubricates relationships, making it possible to resolve the inevitable conflicts of interest in society, if not to everyone’s satisfaction, at least peacefully. Without it, social friction rises and the decision-making engines of democracy run ever more roughly. This will hinder the struggle to begin the rapid transition we must make to a low-carbon economy.

The future of nuclear power is right at the heart of this effort. Despite the success of the massive PR campaign designed to build an impression that more nuclear power is inevitable, all the old doubts remain: on economics, on justification, on safety, on radioactive waste management and much more.

Under the new, and as yet untried, planning law, the primary task of resolving them will fall to Parliament. It will approve the national policy statement which will essentially determine whether or not they will be built since the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) can do little more than decide whether or not a project is consistent with the policy.

This was always a tall order. Even before their recent display of vulgar venality, there was little confidence that MPs had either the expertise or the will to subject government policy on such a complex and technical issue to adequate scrutiny – even if the Whips would let them. We live, in Lord Hailsham’s memorable phrase, in an “elective dictatorship” in which, as we have repeatedly seen in the course of this government, MPs may huff and puff but in the end they do what the government wants.

It will be difficult for a government lacking authority and a parliament lacking legitimacy to put the concerns of those who doubt the value of nuclear power in securing our future to rest. Both the nuclear industry and the government believe public opposition to nuclear power has been assuaged by growing anxiety over climate change. It may, more realistically, be simply a consequence of a quarter of a century without any projects to focus debate. That opposition may now re-emerge as the debate grows.

In the current climate of profound distrust, the nuclear industry’s closeness to the government – the prime minister’s brother is a senior EDF executive – may become more of a liability than an asset. Every move made by all involved will now be lit by a harshly sceptical light.

It will shine, for instance, on the otherwise apparently innocuous announcement in an obscure technical journal that EDF intended to let contracts for building new reactors before the end of this year. How does it make sense for a company to contract for things it needs to build a power station that has not even been fully designed? Does it know something the rest of us do not about the decisions that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and its Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII), the IPC and Parliament have yet to take – after proper consultation of course?

It will also shine on the quarterly reports of the HSE on progress with its Generic Design Assessment where it bravely asserts it is on course to complete its approval of the reactor design by 2011. Thus Parliament will approve next year the building of reactors it does not know the regulator will permit!

We have traditionally had good reason not to doubt our regulators’ independence. But that confidence is undermined by the discovery that the NII is about 60 staff short of those it needs to meet its deadline. With the government and EDF insisting on a spectacularly tight timetable, it is hard to imagine they will not come under immense pressure to put deadlines ahead of deliberations.

It is further undermined by the HSE’s statement in its first quarterly report that it is experiencing “significant delays” in getting responses to technical queries from EDF. Interestingly, the Finnish regulator recently wrote to the head of the French stateowned reactor builder Areva making the same complaint about the three-year late and 50% over budget Olkiluoto reactor.

There are many other issues on which this sceptical light will shine, sometimes in the courts. The world’s first wave of nuclear power stations was killed by lack of money. It is possible that the alleged ‘nuclear renaissance’ will be killed by lack of trust.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool. He was a Senior Advisor to the Foreign Secretary’s Special Representative on Climate Change from 2006-12. He was appointed by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to chair an Independent Review of Environmental Governance in Northern Ireland from 2006-7. He was a member of the Council of English Nature, the statutory advisor to the British Government on biodiversity from 1999-2005. During 2002 he served as an advisor to the Central Policy Group in the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office. He was Special Adviser to three Secretaries of State for the Environment from 1991-97 after serving as Director of the Green Alliance from 1982-1991. He was an environmental advisor (part time) to BP plc from 1999-2001. He was a member of the OECD's High Level Panel on the Environment 1996-98. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and was a member of the Council from 1990-92 sitting on its Environment Committee 1988-96. He also served on the Executive Committee of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations from 1984-89. He was a Visiting Fellow at the Cranfield Institute of Management and a Senior Visiting Fellow at Manchester Business School. He was formerly Executive Director of Friends of the Earth and a member of the Executive Committee of the European Environmental Bureau 1988-91. He was the Secretary-General of the Bergen 1990 Environment NGO Conference 1988-90. He was a member of the Board of the World Energy Council's Commission 'Energy for Tomorrow's World' 1990-93. He currently serves on the Advisory Board for Conservation International’s Centre for Environmental Leadership in Business in the US. In 2007 he was elected a Fellow of the Energy Institute. In 2010 he was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Society for the Environment. He also serves on the European Advisory Council of the Carbon Disclosure Project. He is a Patron of the United Kingdom Environmental Law Association. In 1993 he was appointed to United Nations Environment Programme's 'Global 500' roll of honour. In 1997, he was appointed CBE for services to the environment. He was awarded Royal Humane Society testimonials on Vellum (1968) and Parchment (1970).
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