The big divide: is ideology holding back greens from embracing nuclear power?

| 20th July 2011
Nuclear power station

The UK is pursuing a policy of new nuclear build

Once united in opposition, the environmental movement is now divided on nuclear power. Matilda Lee reports on why some greens say that anti-nuclear is just sentimentalism

They may have gone from dark green to glow-in-the-dark, but the environmentalists behind a series of well-publicised defections to the pro-nuclear camp have done more than just change their colours. They are forming a growing divide on an issue long central to the green cause.

Since the early days of the modern environmental movement, nuclear power has been considered dangerous, expensive as well as unnecessary- with most major green NGOs running long-standing and influential anti-nuclear campaigns, from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth down to the single-issue Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

But now many of those same people- from Executive Director or Greenpeace UK, Stephen Tindale, to Guardian writer George Monbiot and activists and writers Mark Lynas and Stewart Brand among others- are arguing that nuclear, far from being ghastly, is green.

Whether grudgingly or wholeheartedly, they have turned the tables on this most green of green creeds. If we are really going to combat climate change, and at the same time fill the energy gap and meet national and European emissions targets, the argument goes, then nuclear power in the UK is inevitable, and yes, vital.

It is a debate is being played out publicly - in the media and within green circles. Now that the UK government has revived its nuclear power programme - easing planning restrictions, identifying sites, even offering what has been described as under-handed subsidies despite a campaign pledge not to do so - is it conceivable that the green movement, which once vilified the technology, will be its champions?

Sentimentalism vs. science?

Mark Lynas, a campaigner who once espoused strong anti-nuclear beliefs, now suggests in his book The God Species that anti-nuclear campaigners have, ‘unwittingly helped release tens of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,' in stopping planned nuclear plants that were replaced by coal over the last four decades. Writer George Monbiot, now strongly in favour of nuclear, says the anti-nuclear stance is, ‘an irrational and outdated prejudice'.

They charge that greens have got it wrong on the science. By not thoroughly considering new evidence, they claim, greens are fixated on an ideological anti-nuclear stance that doesn't stack up when challenged with new facts.

Ex-Greenpeace director Stephen Tindale says he changed his mind on nuclear power due to two things. ‘The first was that it is not ideal but better than coal and because we are going to need a lot more electricity which we won't be able to provide using renewables and energy efficiency - we are going to need nuclear'.

He believes greens have a legitimate concern with nuclear weapons proliferation, but that, based on the prospect of uncontrolled climate change, it is ‘incorrect' for greens to be anti-nuclear. ‘The risks of not using nuclear are much greater than the risks of using nuclear'.


Pro-nuclear arguments centre on it being far better than dirty coal, more reliable and economically viable than renewables and what's more, the waste issue isn't the problem greens have portrayed it as - technology and time will solve it.

Kate Hudson, chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, whose been campaigning on the issue since the 1970s, begs to differ. ‘They are very much mistaken, I'm not sure what new figures they have seen which would lead them to change their minds. All the new evidence, including much research taken place in Germany that underpinned its recent decision to dispense with nuclear, shows that, in economic terms, it is absolutely viable to press ahead with renewables'.

But is this a case of confirmation bias - dismissing evidence when it doesn't fit a certain belief system? ‘We are not ideologically opposed to nuclear power if it was completely clean and safe and met people's needs in a way that it was cheaper or competitive with other technologies. We are against it because there are so many non, or lower, risk options instead'.

Green group dynamics

How significant and widespread is the newfound pro nuclear stance? And are the traditionally anti-nuclear big green NGOs taking any stock of new, or younger members who may be more favourable towards nuclear power?

Craig Bennett, Friends of the Earth's director of policy and campaigns, says FOE hasn't specifically surveyed its members on the nuclear issue. ‘There is a lot of two-way communication with our members. Some ask why we aren't doing more to campaign against nuclear. I think the vast majority are quite clear in being against new nuclear build. But we haven't done a systematic survey of our 100,000 financial supporters. What we have done is a public opinion poll, and quite a high percentage of people, would broadly prefer energy efficiency and renewables'.

He says that FOE haven't had a staff member entirely focused on nuclear in the last 10 years. ‘Do we rule out academic research into nuclear? No. We are always open to new ideas and research - and have indicated that we support research into [fourth-generation] thorium reactors. The concern is that governments leap on that as a silver bullet and public sector money gets poured into it.'

While FOE seems to have changed its stance, backing off campaigning against nuclear, and instead focused on campaigning for a massive increase in renewables and energy efficiency, Bennett says FOE still considers new nuclear build a threat.

Greenpeace's chief scientist Doug Parr says the group's continued anti nuclear position stems from a set of historic positions and end points it aims to reach. ‘We did change position on nuclear in the UK around 2002 with British Energy's power stations. We advocated phase out in an orderly manner, because immediate shut down would result in an unreasonable level of societal disruption.'

Shouldn't Greenpeace accept the idea that nuclear power is an essential technology to stop climate change? ‘Of course there is a case to answer that nuclear is a solution to climate change. Almost certainly it is low carbon, but not everything can be reduced to carbon. You can get a good carbon balance by cutting old growth forests and replacing them with plantations. On a broader sustainability level, is it a good idea? Looking at the evidence, we can do without it'.

Jim Jepps spokesman for the UK Green Party says, ‘there shouldn't be any heresies' but raised questions about the availability of uranium supplies and the time scale for fourth generation nuclear reactors.

Politics at the heart of nuclear

If ideology isn't at the heart of the UK greens anti-nuclear stance, and green groups seem to be increasingly open to the idea of technological developments to overcome issues such as radioactive waste, then perhaps the greatest frustration is that new nuclear build is the result of a lack of political will.

Doug Parr says nuclear has been particularly corrosive in UK politics. ‘It's been an ideological fixation of government, resulting in policies and action that fail to invest time, energy and money into renewables and energy efficiency. Why have greens come out in favour of nuclear? Because they feel nothing else is working. I empathise with that frustration, but there are a number of key considerations: the threat of nuclear proliferation and whether nuclear and renewables can live side by side.'

It is this incompatibility of nuclear and renewables both vying for attention within a small political bandwidth that is such a huge concern. ‘Politicians only have so much time to push something through,' says Doug Parr. ‘Nuclear faces a whole range of things that need to be dealt with - public opposition, only a certain number of sites, planning and public inquiry. Renewables equally face barriers - building technical skills, planning and consistency of support. It's crunch time.' Parr believes there are practical, political and technical reasons why nuclear and renewables are incompatible.

‘It is quite ironic that Lynas accuses us of being ideological. In fact, we are pragmatic, we need a more decentralised energy system, and nuclear can not do that. It has consistently over promised and under delivered. We can not risk it not delivering now when it hasn't in the last 50 years,' says Craig Bennett.

What about nuclear in the short-term, as a ‘bridge' to a renewable-based energy system? Energy policy expert Bridget Woodman, of the University of Exeter, disagrees. ‘It can't happen. With nuclear it takes ten years to build and 60 to operate. That's 70 years. I don't see it as a bridging option. If we decide now to go down the nuclear route, we are locked in for 70 years.'

But we seem to be on track for doing just that. ‘The government's new set of policies are explicitly designed to enable new nuclear build and even more possibly designed to make EdF very happy. One of the key issues on nuclear power stations is that they are costly to build, meaning you need to reduce uncertainty in the market. That is exactly what the government has done,' she says.

The defiant NO on the nuclear issue has been muted and is now a cacophony of voices - some yes, some maybe, some not sure. Risky and expensive, yes. But nuclear has won over many of its fiercest critics.

Add to StumbleUpon
Exclusive interview Mark Lynas: 'More than half of greens agree with me on GM & nuclear'
Mark Lynas, featured in Channel 4's recent and highly controversial documentary, 'What the green movement got wrong', tells Matilda Lee why he is not the pariah of the eco movement
Environmentalists support nuclear?
Four green travellers have lost their way on the road to Damascus. Only renewables have the answers to our energy predicament.
Don't believe the spin on thorium being a ‘greener’ nuclear option
It produces less radioactive waste and more power than uranium but the UK would be making a mistake in looking to it as a 'greener' fuel. The Ecologist reports
Should future generations be forced to deal with our nuclear legacy?
In producing nuclear power we are taking the benefits today but leaving the burden of cleaning up waste and accident risks to future generations, argues a study on nuclear ethics
Aren't floods, cancer and infant mortality enough to stop Hinkley nuclear proposal?
Despite claims of a higher incidence of breast cancer and infant mortality in the vicinity of the existing Hinkley nuclear plant, and concerns over flooding in the region, the government has put forward crazy plans for a new facility says Rosie Shute


The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate here