Nuclear fallout

The government’s commitment to nuclear power will undermine national and environmental security for

After a lengthy period of dithering over the best way to satisfy Britain’s energy needs, the government has finally taken the path most expected and many had dreaded.

The UK is now, it seems, committed to an indefinite future of nuclear power; a policy decision which represents a dangerous, highly irresponsible and costly distraction from the real challenge of tackling climate change.

At a time when energy companies are warning homeowners to expect a hike in prices, and the price of oil has rocketed to an unprecedented $100 a barrel, the government has launched a PR offensive in favour of nuclear energy. But in choosing nuclear as the way forward, the Labour government is guilty of a staggering failure of political vision.

Rather than looking at the real solutions to demonstrate that there are safer, more effective and more sustainable answers to the energy crisis, and inspiring a new direction on housing insulation, improved efficiency and renewables, Gordon Brown has attempted to intimidate people into blindly accepting nuclear as the only option.

Opposition to the move has been widespread. In my South East constituency alone, many residents have expressed disgust at plans to build new nuclear facilities at Dungeness in Kent. Those living near to such sites earmarked for development will now suffer the direct consequences of the government’s new nuclear push. For example, a number of epidemiological studies have discovered unusually high incidences of childhood leukemia in areas close to nuclear sites.

The fact is that it simply isn't true to call nuclear power the ‘answer’ to the so-called energy gap we face over the next 10 years, and it cannot be the answer to climate change. The earliest that a new nuclear power station could come on stream is around 2017 – too late to fill the energy gap and seven years after the deadline for the UK’s 20% emissions reduction target. Even if Britain built ten new reactors, it's been estimated that nuclear power can only deliver a 4 per cent cut in carbon emissions some time after 2025.

Many nuclear supporters like to highlight the benefits of nuclear power for climate change. But while it is true that enriched uranium releases zero CO2, this does not make it carbon-free. Throughout the lifespan of a nuclear facility – from the construction of the plant and mining for uranium ore, to fuel processing, decommissioning and disposing of the nuclear waste – a significant amount of energy is consumed.

Furthermore, nuclear power is not cheap. No nuclear plant has ever been built without money from the public coffers, yet we are supposed to believe that this government will ensure private energy firms will foot the bill for the lot - from construction to clean-up. According to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the total costs of cleaning up the existing nuclear waste are likely to reach an astronomical £70bn. On top of this, the costs of building a new waste dump could be as high as £21bn. This will inevitably lead to the taxpayer footing the bill.

Public concerns over the safety and ethics of nuclear have never gone away. As well as being a ripe target for terrorist attacks, civil nuclear programmes are inevitably linked to military capabilities. Furthermore, if Britain chooses to go down the nuclear route, it robs us of any moral authority to lecture other countries on their nuclear aspirations, and highlights the enormous hypocrisy of the Government’s position on Iran.

Ultimately, nuclear power is not just unsafe and unsustainable – it's entirely unnecessary. A combination of renewables, energy efficiency, decentralised energy and demand reduction could deliver emissions cuts and energy security much more safely and effectively.

The UK has some of the best renewable energy sources in the world, yet we lag behind other nations whose governments have developed more forward-thinking energy policies. For example, the reason that Germany has 300 times as much solar power and 10 times as much wind power than the UK is simply because German politicians, led by the Greens, have had the political will to lead the way.

On energy efficiency, the government's own figures show there is the potential to save over 30% of all energy used in the UK solely through efficiency measures that would also save money. Moreover, large centralised power stations, whether nuclear or gas, currently waste two thirds of the energy used in electricity generation before it even reaches our homes.

This waste alone accounts for a full 20% of UK CO2 emissions. Nuclear would lock us into a centralised distribution system for the next 50 years at exactly the time when opportunities for micro generation and local distribution networks are stronger than ever.

Radical reforms are urgently needed to the way renewable energy technology development is supported in the UK. Government grants are derisory and the private sector currently invests just £250m a year in renewable energy technology when to significantly boost this industry we need to see more like £2.5 billion going into new projects.

The UK has a real opportunity to lead the way in the development of alternative sources of renewable energy, such as wind and solar power, yet this Government has shown that it prefers to hold on to its ambition of introducing more dirty, dangerous and expensive nuclear power.

The Sustainable Development Commission defines sustainable development as improving the quality of life for people today without damaging the prospects of those living in tomorrow. If the government continues to ignore the calls for safer, greener and more sustainable energy alternatives, future generations will end up paying a high price for our nuclear legacy.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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View from Paisley: How the Conservatives are wooing Labour's Scottish heartlands

Not so long ago, Conservative activists in Paisley could expect doors slammed in their faces. A referendum has changed that.

Tony Lawler, a Labour activist, was recently knocking on doors in the Scottish town of Paisley, when he came across a disgruntled resident. “I’m really disappointed in Douglas Alexander,” the potential voter complained. “I haven’t seen him. He used to be in Morrisons.”

Douglas Alexander, of course, has gone. He was the longstanding Labour MP and onetime International Development secretary who lost his seat in 2015 to a 20-year-old rival, the Scottish National Party’s Mhairi Black. He does not plan to stand again. But when I visit Paisley, a short train ride from Glasgow, I find that memories of him linger on. 

Two years after Alexander’s defeat, I meet Lawler and other local Labour activists in Morrisons, where Alexander used to hold his surgeries. As checkouts beep and trolley wheels roll over linoleum, they point to an empty table in the corner of this hallowed ground: “He used to sit just there.”

In 2015, the SNP’s victory in this former manufacturing town seemed to epitomise the earthquake in Scottish politics. But as the Labour activists know too well, no political fortress is undefeatable. And in Paisley, the home of one of the oldest workers’ festivals in the world, the party with the most to gain is one that previously never dared to canvass in the high street – the Conservative party. 

The town the Brexiteers forgot

In 1988, the historian Sylvia Clarke reflected on Paisley’s lost industries, wondering what was next for the former weaving towns. “Paisley as a tourist centre?” she wondered, in Paisley: A History. “Paisley as a place for visitors to come to, rather than a send-out of goods and emigrants?” 

For all Paisley’s industrial decline, it’s a pretty place. The town is in the running for the 2021 City of Culture, and has the second biggest number of listed buildings after Edinburgh. When I visit in the middle of April, blossom floats on the trees, and a river meanders through a neighbourhood of old, stone houses. It takes a moment to notice weeds tightening their grasp on the window frames. When I try the door of the ancient Paisley Abbey, it’s locked.

Perhaps if Paisley had been located the other side of the border, in Sunderland or Northumbria, it would be voting Leave and flirting with Ukip. But in the most deprived areas here, Labour activists tell me the EU referendum tally was still almost 50-50, and overall the town voted Remain.

There is a view that Brexit is an English concern. “We haven’t picked up anything about the EU referendum,” says Lawler of his doorstep conversations. “What people are talking about is the independence referendum, Jeremy Corbyn and the kids’ ward.” Scotland’s health secretary, Shona Robison, is due to make a decision on whether the specialist ward should be moved to a large hospital in the First Minister’s Glasgow constituency, against the wishes of many Paisley residents. The hospital in question is nicknamed “the Death Star”.  

Another concern, reminiscent of small towns across the UK, is the decline of the high street. When I walk down the historical shopping area Causeyside Street, I find mother and daughter Kate and Linda Hancy packing up what remains of The Pattern Café and Gift Shop. The wallpaper is a glorious Paisley print, but the scented candles are in boxes and a spray soap bottle hangs from a chair. After two years of trying, they are closing down.  

“People just don’t have money to spend,” Kate says. “A lot of people have been on the same wage for more than five years.”

Linda chimes in: “The cost of living going up but wages aren’t the same. I work in a supermarket, and people come in and say ‘How did I spend this much money?’ A lot of people are paying by credit cards.”

The Hancys voted to remain in the UK, and the EU. Although they knew Alexander, they have never met Mhairi Black, and feel devolution, if anything, has made politicians less accountable. “Why are we picking 1,2,3,4,” demands Kate, referring to Holyrood's voting system, which rejected first past the post. “Why can’t we pick one like we used to?”

Without the EU to blame, the most obvious culprits for Paisley town centre’s decline are the out-of-town shopping centres, where cinemas are opening just as historical ones in town close their doors.

Gavin Simpson, owner of Feel the Groove, a new record shop, remembers the 1980s, when a new release would have shoppers queuing round the block. However, he believes the town is over the worst. (As we speak, a customer comes in to reserve such a record and cheerfully warns Gavin that “even if I ask for my money back, don’t give it to me.”)

One thriving business is the longstanding butchers, Wm Phelps. Manager James Peacock tells me it is down to the trustworthy Scottish produce, which is carefully tracked and labelled. But the business has also embraced globalisation.  After noticing a large number of South African customers, Peacock began selling boerewors and biltong.

The other referendum campaign

If Paisley has been spared the divisions of the EU referendum campaign, its “buddies” – as residents are known – are still reeling with the repercussions of an earlier referendum, that on Scotland in the UK. In 2014, the town voted for independence, although the county overall opted to stay in the UK. 

The town is home to a particularly brash strain of indyreffers, including the “Smith Commission burners”, three SNP councillors who gathered in front of the council headquarters to burn a copy of the report setting out new powers for Scotland. One of them, Mags MacLaren, went on to manage Black’s constituency office.

But if the Paisley independence movement has been well covered, less is known about its opposite - the rise of pro-unionism. 

Of the three mainstream parties opposed to independence, it is the Scottish Conservatives, with their unconventional leader Ruth Davidson, who have most effectively capitalised on the pro-union message. In the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, the Tory Jackson Carlaw captured the West of Scotland constituency of Eastwood, which had been held by Labour since its creation. 

In Holyrood, the Scottish Tories benefit from proportional representation, which allows voters to choose a constituency MSP but also rank parties. 

According to Paul Masterton, the Tory candidate for East Renfrewshire, and the secretary of the Renfrewshire and Inverclyde Scottish Conservative Association, the Conservatives are now getting huge numbers of first preference votes, including in neighbourhoods like the suburb of Ralston, where both Black and Masterton are from. So who are these voters? Masterton describes them as “New Labour voters who were happy with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown but didn’t like Jeremy Corbyn and get tied up into knots by [Scottish Labour leader] Kezia Dugdale flipflopping on the union stance".

The 2016 election saw the Scottish Conservatives surge to second place in Scotland – a superb comeback for a party once ridiculed as being rarer than pandas. The next electoral test is the local council elections. In Paisley, even Labour activists acknowledged the Conservatives were likely to be the most notable winners.

“For a long time we simply didn’t go out in Paisley," says Masterton. "We were written off and we allowed ourselves to be written off.”

But the referendum has changed this. “What I found was that last May, people weren’t shutting the door in your face," he adds. "Once you started the conversation they were far more receptive to that.” 

Like the Labour activists, Masterton argues that the constitutional question matters more than Brexit. “When Theresa May said ‘now is not the time’, I think a lot of people across Paisley did a small quiet fist pump,” he says of a second independence referendum.  

Ironically, after the early election is called, the Scottish Conservatives do everything they can to mention the prospect. “Don't mention the 'i' word,” crows a recent press release about the “SNP indyref ban”. Davidson tweets: “Nicola doesn't want to stand on her record. She knows the country doesn't want her #indyref2.” A Panelbase survey commissioned by The Sunday Times Scotland published shortly after the early election was announced finds support for the Conservatives at Scotland at 33 per cent, 18 percentage points higher than in 2015. 

What you stand for

For now, Paisley remains a Scottish National Party stronghold. George Adams, the MSP with an office off the high street, proves elusive – Labour activists confirm his reputation as a hardworking local. Black’s aide turns down my request for an interview for similar reasons, but I bump into her that evening at a protest against cutting child tax credits in Glasgow’s George Square.

Black, an admirer of the left-wing Labour figure Tony Benn, once said she feels "it is the Labour party that left me". I ask her if she, like her Labour predecessor, holds surgeries in supermarkets. Black says she’d considered it, but given the sensitivity of some of the issues, such as benefit problems, she thought her constituents might appreciate a more private space. “The main thing that crosses the door in my offices is Universal Credit changes,” she explains. She says she has raised her concerns about the children’s ward.

As for the independence debate, she argues that the Scottish government have been “incredibly compromising” since Brexit, but adds: “A lot of folk want another chance at the question.”

Black is standing for re-election. With a majority of more than 5,000, and neither of her previous challengers in the running, she’s likely to keep her seat, even if buddies' discontent over local issues rumbles on. 

Still, as I have discovered, the 2014 referendum continues to reverberate in towns like Paisley. It has divided friends and neighbours on constitutional lines, galvanised new strains of politics, and brought a Labour heavyweight crashing down, with no appetite to return. 

The Tories believe their unionist message is enough to flip seats like East Renfrewshire, once Conservative, then Labour, and now an SNP marginal. As the SNP's shine wears off, could Paisley, with its long tradition of the left, one day follow? It no longer feels implausible. “The one thing about the Scottish Conservatives - and this is true whatever you like us or not,” says Masterton. “You know what we stand for.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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