Last updated: Jul 2006
Jane Lawson reports on the nuclear industry’s attempt to portray itself as the clean energy provider of the future.
A few years ago you could have been forgiven for thinking that the UK nuclear industry was on its last legs.
BNFL had declared itself bankrupt in 2001, British Energy had declared itself effectively bankrupt in 2002, the 11 Magnox reactors were nearing the end of their working lives, there’d been a waste disposal scandal or two and there seemed little chance of a new generation of nuclear power stations being commissioned.
But in summer 2005, starting with a pro-nuclear article in the Independent by James Lovelock, a steady stream of articles started appearing suggesting that the nuclear industry, with its “clean” energy, was an essential part of the fight against climate change.
Since then it has become apparent that, in spite of two government-commissioned reports rejecting it on practical, economic and environmental grounds, nuclear has high level government backing as an energy source. It is now widely expected that new nuclear power stations will be recommended as a part of the UK’s future energy strategy when the government publishes its Energy Review this summer.
But nuclear power will only be viable if the government provides subsidies and changes the current regulatory framework.
Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that BNFL wants to fast-track the planning process by pre-licensing reactors before sites are selected, and restrict the scope of local planning enquiries so that issues such as security, safety and environmental impact are discussed behind closed doors.
And for new nuclear reactors to be profitable, the companies need a guaranteed price for their electricity and/or the introduction of a Nuclear Obligation, which would oblige all electricity companies to sell a certain amount of nuclear-generated electricity.
They are also looking for assurances that they will not be left with a huge bill for disposing of their own nuclear waste. Unsurprisingly, the government’s current subsidy is already helping to fund a well-thought out PR strategy to give the nuclear industry what it wants.
The main players in the British nuclear industry are the state-owned British Nuclear Fuels Limited and British Energy. BNFL is the holding company for nuclear clean-up business British Nuclear Group, research and development company Nexia Solutions and nuclear engineering and technology company Westinghouse. It is currently in the process of selling Westinghouse to Toshiba Corporation for $5.4 bn  and has also gained government approval to sell British Nuclear Group.
British Energy is the UK’s largest electricity producer, generating around 20% of the country’s electricity and owning and operating two thirds of Britain’s nuclear power stations. It was privatised in 1996, in spite of dire warnings from Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace about the likely extent of future clean-up costs.
Sure enough, in 2002 the company declared itself effectively bankrupt and the government bailed it out, guaranteeing to meet a significant part of the costs of waste disposal and making ongoing payments since early 2004 towards the cost of treating its spent fuel at Sellafield. British Energy revealed in February 2006 that the liabilities underwritten by the taxpayer had increased by £1bn to £5.1bn.
Another large player is Electricité de France, whose subsidiary EDF Energy supplies gas and electricity to about a quarter of the UK’s population and owns SWEB Energy and Seeboard Energy. EDF is the largest nuclear energy supplier in France and is also involved in nuclear power in the USA and China.
It has offered to build nuclear power stations in Britain at no cost to the taxpayer, but wants a guaranteed price for its electricity and a fast-track planning process. German company E.ON, owner of Powergen, is also considering major investment in new nuclear power stations, and is, with EDF, seen as the leader of any potential new build in the UK.
Other nuclear industry players
US giant General Electric has been lobbying for its Advanced Boiling Water Reactor design to be used in any new UK reactors while RWE, the German owner of nPower, is already involved in nuclear engineering in the UK.
Many other major engineering and construction companies have contracts with the nuclear industry; the 100-strong membership list of the Nuclear Industry Association includes ABB, Amec, Bechtel, Carillion, Costain, Fluor, Serco, McAlpine and Taylor Woodrow. Under Freedom of Information requests Corporate Watch has found that BNFL pays £200,000 per year to the NIA, as well as £192,000 for membership of the European nuclear industry group FORATOM.
BNFL also gives the NIA and the British Nuclear Energy Society ad hoc payments throughout the year and has channelled money through NIA to Supporters of Nuclear Energy, a group run by Mrs Thatcher’s former press secretary Bernard Ingham.
The nuclear industry started putting its public relations house in order about a year before the 2005 general election. At the end of 2004 British Energy appointed Monsanto’s former top UK lobbyist as head of government affairs, and then hired former energy minister Helen Liddell on a short-term contract to provide “strategic advice”.
In early 2005 the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority appointed as communications director a member of the BAA PR team that successfully brought us Heathrow’s terminal 5. The industry also ran various “off the record” events for journalists, including a breakfast hosted by AMEC with David King, the government’s chief scientist, former energy minister Brian Wilson and the chief executive of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority as speakers.
The current Labour MP for Copeland was BNFL’s press officer; according to PR Week, he was selected from a shortlist composed exclusively of PR professionals, all but one of whom had connections to the nuclear industry.
As well as their in-house staff, the industry uses various PR firms. BNFL uses Weber Shandwick, PR21, Bell Pottinger Communications and financial PR company Finsbury.
Philip Dewhurst, its corporate affairs director, was previously CEO of Weber Shandwick UK  and told PR Week that the company was using the classic PR technique of using a third party, PR outfit Strategic Awareness, to put forward the pro-nuclear message: “We spread that via third-party opinion because the public would be suspicious if we started ramming pro-nuclear messages down their throats”.
Several former BNFL executives are now with Integrated Decision Management, a pro-nuclear consultancy that has been helping the ostensibly independent Committee on Radioactive Waste Management to assess nuclear waste options; one of IDM’s directors is still paid by BNFL and in October 2005 IDM announced it was bringing in four other ex-BNFL staff.
In 2003 British Energy took on PPS Group, a PR agency that specialises in influencing local government, especially with regard to planning issues. British Energy has also paid Financial Dynamics £1m to talk about its financial situation and employed international PR consultancy Hill & Knowlton to prepare the ground for its 1996 privatisation. Hill & Knowlton is also employed by the new US pro-nuclear group Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, which is funded by nuclear industry lobby group Nuclear Energy Institute.
In January 2006 it was revealed that British Energy had provided secretarial support to the Scottish Cross-party Parliamentary Group on Nuclear Power and part-funded a trip by the group and its English counterpart, the Nuclear Energy All-Party Parliamentary Group, while BNFL funded accommodation costs for MSPs visiting the reprocessing plant.
Nirex, the government agency responsible for overseeing the storage of radioactive waste, and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority have also both employed Bell Pottinger, leading Private Eye to wonder “Why is the Bell Pottinger PR firm passing on potted biographies of MPs focusing on their supposed attitude to nuclear power to the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency (NDA)? The NDA’s job, after all, is to clean up the mess left by the old atomic generation, not to promote new nuclear power stations.”
Bell Pottinger’s sister company Bell Pottinger Good Relations has been paid £375,000 by Nirex since 2003. Good Relations’ other clients include Monsanto, Nestlé and Tesco. Nirex has also employed Promise PR and the Future Foundation for a variety of PR work. Incidentally, in summer 2005 the Future Foundation published a study, “Assault on Pleasure”, portraying opponents of unregulated corporate excess as a movement of moralising killjoys that they dubbed “the New Puritans”.
Lobbying Europe is also vital, as any subsidies provided by EU member governments have to be approved by the European Commission. The European equivalent of the NIA is FORATOM, which is funded by the European nuclear industry and has 15 to 20 staff in Brussels. BNFL and BE also have a staff member each in Brussels. In contrast, the anti-nuclear lobby is heavily outnumbered with just one NGO representative in Brussels, Mark Johnston of Greenpeace.
However, even with all these resources, there’s a great difference between Tony Blair saying that nuclear power plants are back on the agenda “with a vengeance” and any actual construction. Margaret Thatcher was regarded as the most pro-nuclear of Prime Ministers but only one nuclear reactor was built during her interminable tenure. Although they are trying to present it as inevitable, there is still a long way to go for the nuclear industry.
- Write to your MP asking them to oppose new nuclear power stations and to sign EDM 1564 (Debate and Vote on Nuclear Power) and EDM 1565 (Keep Wales Nuclear Free Campaign)
- Buy your energy from a renewable supplier such as Good Energy (0845 456 1640, www.good-energy.co.uk/), the only company listed on www.electricityinfo.org/suppliers.php as generating all its electricity from renewables.
- See www.no2nuclearpower.org.uk for a list of 34 other ways to stop nuclear power
From Ethical Consumer, Issue 101, July/August 2006