It’s never a good thing to fall out with an organisation that one loves. But, at the moment, that’s how it is for me with Friends of the Earth. And it’s all about nuclear.

The dispute is simply explained. On May 15th, Friends of the Earth released its ‘Priority List’ of policies for Amber Rudd, the new Secretary of State at DECC. It’s a perfectly reasonable list, apart from one thing: as you’ll see, there’s no mention of nuclear policy in general, or of Hinkley Point in particular:

1. Show leadership going into the Paris climate talks
2. Energy efficiency – warm homes for everyone
3. Help Solar keep growing
4. Wind – both on and offshore
5. Energy owned by people
6. No cash to high-carbon biomass
7. Moratorium on fracking
8. No new dash for gas
9. Phase out coal
10. Build strong bridges with Department for Transport, Defra and Treasury

I’ve been troubled for a long time about Friends of the Earth’s downgrading of its opposition to nuclear power, and have suggested on a number of occasions that this is unwise. Foolish, even, for reasons explained below. Yet here we were again, with nuclear power deemed insufficiently important to get into a list of ten things. So I fired off this email:

“Thanks for sending through the list of priorities for Amber Rudd.

I can hardly believe that you haven’t even bothered to mention Hinkley Point – other than an oblique reference to the fact that both offshore and onshore wind will soon be cheaper than nuclear.

It does confirm for me that FoE has simply ceased to be any kind of serious organisation when it comes to dealing with nuclear issues. Truly remarkable – and truly reprehensible.

Sorry not to be more enthusiastic.”

This somehow got leaked to the media, with the Independent on Sunday then doing a piece on my attack on Friends of the Earth being ‘truly reprehensible’. Fair enough, but unhelpful to me – and deeply irksome to Friends of the Earth, which continues to assert that its anti-nuclear position is as strong today as it’s been since the founding of the organisation back in 1971.

That’s just about true. Its most recent briefing on nuclear power categorically confirms that position, as does the blog from its Director Designate, Craig Bennett. But that position was severely tested back in 2013, when a badly-managed policy review led many to detect a significant weakening of its anti-nuclear stance. Eventually, after a lot of argy-bargy, the review came out in the right place, confirming FoE’s core position against nuclear power, with only a few nuances.

However, there’s a world of difference between ‘having a position’, and acting in such a way as to turn that position into reality. And that’s the place where Friends of the Earth and myself have fallen out.

FoE nationally hasn’t actively campaigned against nuclear power for a long time. And it’s played only a minor role in the campaign against the proposed nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset. Its rationale is a simple one: FoE is an organisation with limited resources, and it has to prioritise the deployment of those resources to achieve maximum impact. So it’s chosen to focus more on renewablesanti-fracking and so on – as in the ten-point Plan.

As a result, its anti-nuclear work has been restricted to a bit of letter-writing, and support for a few sign-up campaigns. It’s left all the rest of it to those of its local groups which have continued to oppose nuclear power actively despite the withdrawal of the national organisation.

FoE also has what is to me a troubling position on thorium reactors – promoted by a small but vocal band of enthusiasts as a ‘green’ form of nuclear power. Here’s what FoE says on the topic in its January briefing:

” … we support research into new forms of nuclear, such as thorium nuclear power; if successfully developed, this might produce less dangerous waste. We take this approach because it makes sense to have fall-back options in the future should renewables technology not develop as expected.”

This may sound all very mature and sensible, but in fact it’s no such thing. Using thorium as the basis for the nuclear fuel cycle solves none of the problems of high cost, nuclear weapons proliferation, nuclear waste, radioactive emissions and decommissioning. The only difference is a lower production of long-lived transuranics (like plutonium) in the waste.

And it has three huge disadvantages:

• First, the develop the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) technology favoured by thorium advocates would likely cost of the order of $100 billion;
• Second, we don’t know if a working design would ever result as there are huge engineering challenges, for example in creating materials to withstand the high temperatures and intense radiation for decades on end;
• Third, even if the project were successful, there’s no way that LFTRs could be deployed at scale for half a century – by which time, the rapid development of renewables that’s taking place will have made it entirely redundant.

So in my humble opinion, any idea of supporting more research into thorium reactors is plain daft. If there’s a spare $100 billion to be spent on energy research, it should go into accelerating the development of clean, green renewable technologies!

For me, the naivety in its overall positioning is deeply troubling.

  1. The Government’s continuing support for a ‘nuclear renaissance’ in the UK is now the single biggest barrier to the UK developing the kind of coherent, sustainable energy strategy that FoE subscribes to. The entire policy-making process has been hijacked by Ministers’ obsession with nuclear power, and were any new nuclear to go ahead, it would lock us into hugely inefficient and unwieldy generation and distribution systems, essentially eliminating prospects for a radically different, distributed energy system.
  2. In effect, DECC has already become the Department for Nuclear Power and Nuclear Legacy, with at least 90% of its (already very small) budget of around £8bn dedicated to cleaning up the UK’s nuclear legacy, particularly at Sellafield. Much of this spend is non-negotiable, so further cuts (which now look inevitable) will fall on everything else – including renewables and energy efficiency.
  3. As the Government’s pro-nuclear position has become more and more extreme, it’s having a more and more disturbing impact on energy policy in general – as I’ve explained in umpteen blogs over the last few years. The renewables sector has already taken a massive hit because of the preferencing of nuclear, and energy efficiency barely gets a look-in when it comes to thinking strategically about our energy infrastructure.
  4. As both Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace stay in the background on nuclear issues, largely invisible and mostly silent, more and more people are gulled into thinking that nuclear really does have some part to play in securing our low-carbon energy future – not just in the UK but around the world. This fantasy persists in part because those who know just how ludicrous it is apparently haven’t got time to speak up and campaign against it.

Friends of the Earth remains unmoved by any of these completely obvious realities. And it further justifies its position, when challenged, by arguing that Hinkley Point is more than likely to fail anyway, primarily for financial reasons, so why bother to campaign against something that’s as good as dead in the water anyway?

I too happen to believe that Hinkley Point will never happen – which is precisely why I believe it’s more important than ever to be ramping up the pressure, not withdrawing even further into the background, FoE’s priority list for Amber Rudd so worryingly demonstrated.

What’s more, it’s foolish to think that the nuclear industry’s dreams will automatically fade away with the collapse of the Hinkley Point project. There’s an extremely aggressive campaign already under way to accelerate approval for a completely different kind of reactor at Sellafield, led by the NuGen consortium, and other sites (including Sizewell) are only too aware of being ‘next in line’.

At one level, the stand-off between myself and Friends of the Earth is just a question of campaigning prioritisation. But at another, it’s about the heart and soul of an organisation that more than ever needs to stay true to its vision of a fair, efficient and low-carbon energy system – without any nuclear – in its deeds as much as in its words.