Noisy support for an obvious failure via Beyond Nuclear International

By Andrew Stirling and Phil Johnstone

At Edinburgh’s Haymarket station, on the route used by COP26 delegates hopping across to Glasgow last November, a large poster displayed a vista from the head of Loch Shiel. In the foreground, a monument to the Jacobite rebellion towers from the spot where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard. From there, the water sweeps back to a rugged line of hills.

This is one of Scotland’s most iconic views, famous for both its history and its role in the Harry Potter films.

On the poster, written in the sky above the loch are the words: “Keep nature natural: more nuclear power means more wild spaces like these.” At the bottom is a hashtag – #NetZeroNeedsNuclear – with no further mention of who might be behind this advert.


Of course, all this is par for the course in the creative world of PR. But there are more substantive grounds why nuclear advocates might wish to avoid too much public scrutiny at the moment. One reality, which can be agreed on from all sides, is that this is by far the worst period in the 70-year history of this ageing industry. So how come it is benefitting from growing and noisy support in mainstream and social media? Why are easily refuted arguments still being deployed to justify new nuclear power alongside renewables in the energy supply mix? And why has the media seized so enthusiastically on a few prominent converts to the nuclear cause?

Nuclear loses out to renewables

At current prices, atomic energy now costs around three times as much as wind or solar power. And that’s before you consider the full expense of waste management, elaborate security, anti-proliferation measures or periodic accidents. For more than a decade, nuclear has been plagued by escalating costsexpanding build times and crashing orders. Trends in recent years are all steeply in the wrong direction.


Among those few countries still pursuing large-scale nuclear new-build programmes, most (like the UK) are either equipped with, or actively chasing, nuclear weapons. But even in the UK (home to one of the proportionally most ambitious nuclear programmes in the world), official data unequivocally shows that renewable energy seriously outpaces nuclear power as a pathway to zero-carbon energy.

In fact, despite misleading suggestions to the contrary by senior figures, background government data has for decades shown that the massive scale of viable UK renewable resources is clearly adequate for all foreseeable needs. Even with storage and flexibility costs included, renewables are available far more rapidly and cost-effectively than nuclear power.

So, for all the breakdancing, it really is a conundrum why persistently bullish government and industry claims on nuclear power remain so seriously under-challenged in the wider debate. It is becoming ever more clear that nuclear plans are diverting attention, money and resources that could be far more effective if used in other ways.


The media loves nuclear power

In fact, the British media has developed a habit of doggedly repeating claims by the nuclear industry that are, at best, somewhat wishful thinking.


Environmentalists’ Damascene conversions

One oddly prominent trope pertains to environmentalists who are reported to have changed their minds. In any time, such personal shifts would generally be a peculiar media preoccupation – no other debate in the environmental movement is closely followed in the establishment press. But when the reported changes so consistently favour such a manifestly globally failing policy, it is especially peculiar. Why, when nuclear fortunes are at their lowest ebb in half a century, is the surface impression so much more supportive than it ever has been?

For instance, some of the most prominent examples of the ‘repentant critic’ trope emerged a decade ago, around George Monbiot and Mark Lynas. Each has emphasised repeatedly and loudly that they were once actively critical of nuclear power, but have since changed their thinking to become more favourable.

Speaking to openDemocracy, Monbiot clarified that he is against Hinkley C nuclear power station in Somerset, due to open in 2026, which he called “a white elephant”. But – despite the issues around SMRs mentioned above – he says he “remains enthusiastic about fourth generation modular technologies [like many SMRs]”.

Crucially for Monbiot: “Fukushima woke me up to how low the risk from nuclear was by comparison to other energy sources. A disaster on such a scale… and nobody died.


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