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.