Copeland by-election: opposing nuclear power, and voting Green, is the only rational choice

Originally published by The Ecologist on 17 February 2017.

The media, and every other candidate in next week’s Copeland by-election, have fallen prey to the nuclear industry’s mighty PR machine by backing the planned Moorside nuclear mega-project just next to the Sellafield site.

Trying to set the story straight is an uphill struggle, and can at times be maddening. But it’s worth the fight.

In December last year the MP for Copeland, Jamie Reed, announced he would be standing down. He would be going back to the place he worked before he became an MP – Sellafield.

Sellafield is a nuclear decommissioning site that sits on the verges of the Lake District National Park in the parliamentary constituency of Copeland. It employs some 10,000 people, and thousands more are involved in its supply chain.

It comprises the site of Windscale, where the UK’s worst nuclear disaster occurred in 1957: a fire broke out in its graphite reactor packed with nuclear fuel, in which plutonium for nuclear bombs was being ‘cooked’. The clean-up will continue for hundreds of years.

As a result of its dominance as an employer, Sellafield looms large over the constituency. And naturally, this makes the site, and the nuclear industry more generally, a political hot potato in the upcoming by-election in which I am standing. The vote takes place next Thursday, 23rd February.

Man of principle? Corbyn’s extraordinary nuclear flip

Perhaps the most breathtaking twist in this story has been the decision of Jeremy Corbyn to reverse his position on new nuclear power.

Writing for this very publication in 2015, Corbyn stated: I am opposed to fracking and to new nuclear on the basis of the dangers posed to our ecosystems. He went on to outline the case in detail, even referencing Sellafield itself. As he wrote,

“New nuclear power will mean the continued production of dangerous nuclear waste and an increased risk from radioactive accident and nuclear proliferation … The government plans to subsidise new nuclear power plants to the tune of £77 billion, despite the cost of cleaning up the existing nuclear waste reaching £100 billion.

“Instead we should be looking at more sustainable solutions to the ways in which we deliver answers to the transport, heating, cooling and power needs in a society that must live more lightly on the planet. It is the only one we’ve got.”

But facing the prospect of a deeply embarrassing by-election defeat, and urged on by the strongly pro-nuclear local Labour party, he U-turned on one of his core principles and gave his backing to the three-reactor Moorside nuclear power station.

This has seen the little support he had further ebbing away, with Millom Momentum tweeting that they were endorsing my candidacy – though the tweet has since been deleted. Other regional Momentum groups have been adding ‘Nuclear power? No thanks‘ stickers to Labour’s campaign literature.

Corbyn somehow contrived to execute his U-turn just as the wheels were falling off the Moorside project – with Toshiba, the project leader and owner of the AP1000 reactor design planned for the site, saying it would reconsider the future of the overseas nuclear business and entering into what may prove a terminal decline following news of $6.3 billion losses on construction of four AP1000s in the USA by its Westinghouse subsidiary.

Meanwhile France’s Engie, Toshiba’s junior partner in the Nugen consortium, is increasingly desperate to ditch its involvement not just Moorside but its entire overseas nuclear portfolio in favour of less risky, quicker, cheaper, more profitable renewables.

Corbyn’s about-face beggars belief, and only consolidates the Green Party’s decision to stand a candidate in this contentious by-election.

The only anti-nuke in the village?

The media has enjoyed carving me out as the only anti-nuclear candidate, which has led to the inevitable scaremongering that I’m trying to suggest that we should close Sellafield and terminate the employment of vast swathes of local people.

So from the outset I want to be very clear that I, and the Green Party nationally, have no objection to the decommissioning work going on at Sellafield or the workers who are doing it. I have friends who work at the site and I am as outraged as everyone else at the recent attack on their pensions.

What we do object to are the proposals for the new Moorside nuclear power plant. Unfortunately, the nuclear lobby’s spin on this project has been very successful, and many locals – including every other candidate standing – have found themselves favouring it.

The lobby have successfully distorted and massaged the figures in terms of the employment the plant will bring by estimating the number of jobs that will be provided during the “lifetime of the plant”. The figures are effectively meaningless and astronomically exceed the actual number of jobs provided by comparative sites like Heysham.

The LibDems actually passed an strongly anti-nuclear motion just months ago at their 2016 autumn conference, stating:

  • “Conference believes that the construction of the new nuclear station at Hinkley Point is both entirely dependent on public subsidy and represents very poor value for money for UK consumers, and that therefore it should be opposed.”
  • “Conference calls for a UK energy strategy resting on investments in energy efficiency, renewable energy, storage and interconnection with European grids, thereby providing energy security, an end to fuel poverty and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions at the same time as creating jobs, exports and prosperity.”

But then up pops party leader Tim Farron proclaiming: “The nuclear industry is the backbone of the local economy … The government must now put its money where its mouth is and urgently intervene to secure investment in Moorside and protect jobs in Copeland.”

A neglected constituency

But while there’s endless money on offer for nuclear power, Copeland is a desperately neglected, remote corner of the UK that is susceptible to any party claiming to offer salvation. Spending on public infrastructure in the constituency has been frankly abysmal for decades.

Its largest hospital is facing the loss of its consultant-led maternity ward and A&E department. Naturally, the nuclear industry has assumed the role of Copeland’s knight in shining armour, ready to provide mass employment, save the hospital, and fix all the roads and railways.

Except that when you take a moment to scrutinise what is actually going on, it becomes increasingly apparent that Moorside is also unlikely to provide the other economic benefits that it likes to claim. NuGen, the company behind the project, has been increasingly evasive as to how and when it will be committing to the public infrastructure spending that it initially promised.

In early January, Cumbria County Council leader Stewart Young, said that that the council was reaching the end of its tether with the lack of support from the government and NuGen. “We have been told the government isn’t going to give any money. NuGen won’t give any money”, he said.

And with both Toshiba and Engie set to withdraw, the commitment of other candidates and their parties to backing Moorside is all too likely to be put to the test. Will they really demand that the government stumps up the tens of billions of pounds needed for the project amid savage cuts to the NHS, education and social care?

The argument for energy doesn’t add up

Putting aside the economic arguments, the case for the energy itself that Moorside will provide doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny.

Rebecca Hanson, the Liberal Democrat candidate, has said that the plant is needed to help with the substantial baseload that the National Grid requires to be functional. However she is contradicted by Steve Holliday, the former CEO of the National Grid who said that the idea of large power stations for baseload is outdated.”

He goes on to say, “From a consumer’s point of view, baseload is what I am producing myself. The solar on my rooftop, my heat pump – that’s the baseload. Those are the electrons that are free at the margin.” If there is any way in which nuclear does make sense as part of an energy mix, Holliday says it is in the form of smaller, modular nuclear power plants. Not enormous white elephant projects like Moorside.

Rebecca Hanson further stated that it wasn’t possible for renewables to fill the void left by nuclear decommissioning, but again she is proven wrong by the many countries – among them Germany – that are managing just fine.

Some smear those who are anti-nuclear in this country as uninformed hippies who have read too much Greenpeace propaganda. The fact is that a wide array of developed nations have no nuclear power and their reliance on fossil fuels has been consistently declining. The list includes Australia, Austria, Denmark, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Norway and Portugal.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster in 2011, Belgium, Germany, Spain and Switzerland decided that the game was up, and that they would commence a phasing-out of nuclear power. And of course Japan decided that it needed to seriously reduce its reliance on nuclear power with an end goal of phasing it out.

The existential dangers of nuclear power

So speaking of Fukushima, what are the dangers of nuclear power? It is true to say that things have got safer over the years, but the fact remains that with the best will in the world, a nuclear power plant carries with it extreme risks. A catastrophic failure of a wind turbine or solar panel is no big deal in the grand scheme of things.

A nuclear plant is a somewhat different story. There is now a 30km exclusion zone around Fukushima, this would be the equivalent of most of Copeland, and some of the neighbouring constituencies. And were it not for the courage and self-sacrifice of Fukushima engineers, the accident could easily have made nearby Tokyo uninhabitable.

You might be thinking that there’s no risk of a tsunami here. While you would be right to assume that the risk is lower here than in many parts of Japan, tsunamis on the British Isles are not unheard of. There is a substantiated hypothesis that the Bristol Channel flood of 1607 was in fact a tsunami caused by an ancient fault line off the south coast of Ireland. Scientists also believe that a devastating tsunami hit Scotland 7,000 years ago as a result of an enormous landslide in Norway.

Although the risk of a Fukushima happening on British soil may seem remote, is it worth the risk? Especially when none of the other arguments add up? And how good are we at predicting risk anyway? We’re only human.

After the severe flooding of 2009 in Cumbria, tens of millions of pounds went into flood defences that experts were convinced would protect towns like Keswick and Cockermouth for decades, and yet just six years later both towns saw floods that overtopped the defences and were even more devastating than the floods that had preceded them.

In an increasingly unstable climate, what if similar miscalculations are made at Moorside?

Hope not fear

So what could we be doing instead? Something that personally excites me and that I have been promoting during this campaign is the prospect of a tidal lagoon for West Cumbria. The company behind the one proposed for Swansea Bay have already carried out over 100 meetings with local interest groups and are keen to begin work on a project that will also bring thousands of jobs to the area.

There is also a huge potential for large scale renewable energy to be developed, as key technologies – notably offshore wind, solar, electricity storage and the ‘smart grid’ – get ever cheaper and more competitive, not just against nuclear power, but against fossil fuels as well.

But further, I believe that Copeland needs to diversify its economy. In my industry, many companies are growth-restricted by an inability to hire enough people. My company and others like it are distributed and employ people to work remotely from wherever they live. For those who have exposure to education in programming, there are potentially limitless well-paid opportunities.

I believe the constituency also needs to desperately focus on providing business support. There are many unoccupied buildings in towns like Whitehaven, Egremont and Millom. At relatively low cost, these could be turned into incubation spaces for startups. Tech is one of my preferences because I know the industry and because the remote location and challenging geography of Copeland provides no significant hindrance.

We need an MP who will focus on tackling the issues facing Copeland like poverty, improving education, and sorting out infrastructure and public transport – because the nuclear industry hasn’t, and never will!

Photo of the Sellafield nuclear complex by Dafydd Waters via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).

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