Why nuclear "Justification" isn't enough

New build nuclear reactors will escape proper Parliamentary scrutiny. That cannot be right.

The nuclear industry want to build over ten new nuclear reactors in the UK. Each of these reactors will have 2.5 times the radiological inventory of Sizewell B, the biggest reactor in the UK.

Government figures state that a substantial new nuclear re-build will provide 4 per cent of our energy, and so halt only 4 per cent of our CO2 emissions. The estimated cost to taxpayers of decommissioning our current reactors and dealing with our present nuclear waste has mounted from £50bn to £73bn over the last five years.

The actual costs will be over £100bn.

Nuclear "Justification" is a high level assessment about whether the benefits of new nuclear build outweigh the health detriments. Justification is a legal regulatory requirement under EU law - it must be done before reactors can be approved. Once the Justification decision has been taken it will be all but impossible to re-open nuclear policy.

This will not be subject to any Parliamentary scrutiny until after a decision has been made. However, if you don't know the reactor design and can't prove you can dispose of the radioactive waste, how on earth can you know the release?

And if this is so, which it is, how can you expect to be in compliance with the law? Unfortunately this is the position that the Office of Nuclear development at the Department of Energy and Climate Change find themselves.

This means that government is about to take a decision on the "Justification" of more nuclear power when significant "what if" issues that are tied to health impact - such as reactor design and siting, vulnerability to attack, radiation waste, radiation risk, reactor decommissioning - have not been resolved.

Failure to do this leaves the government open to legal challenge and leads to hostility and mistrust of any future energy policy decision.

At this politically sensitive and strategic time for UK energy futures, whether you are for, against, or haven't made your mind up about new nuclear reactors on the UK - this critical decision must be dealt with openly and fairly to get a better result for everyone by generating public trust in the outcome.

Because the Justification of new nuclear power in the UK represents a key issue for trust in government energy policy and the control of nuclear risk, we believe the Government should hold an Independent Inquiry, as allowed for under the regulations governing Justification: The Justification of Practices Involving Ionising Radiation Regulations 2004 (No. 1769), Regulation 17.

Join us.

Dr Paul Dorfman is Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust Energy Policy Research Fellow, facilitates the Nuclear Consultation Group, Member of MOD Submarine Dismantling Project (SDP) Steering Group (MSDPSG), Steering Group Member SAFEGROUNDS (Safety and Environmental Guidance for Remediation of Nuclear and Defence Sites), and served as Secretary to the Committee Examining Radiation Risks from Internal Emitters (CERRIE).

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.