The BBC, Friends of the Earth and nuclear power

Has the BBC forgotten its commitment to impartial journalism? Photo: BBC handbook 1963, by Gordon Joly via Flickr.
Has the BBC forgotten its commitment to impartial journalism? Photo: BBC handbook 1963, by Gordon Joly via Flickr.
At first it looked like a journalistic coup, writes Neil Crumpton - the BBC's 'scoop' that FOE was no longer opposed to nuclear power. Except that FOE remains firmly anti-nuclear as it has been for decades. The spotlight must now be turned on the BBC itself, and its little-known but shocking links to the nuclear industry
Is it possible that the BBC Trust's links to EdF have effects down the ranks of the organisation and permeate the minds of journalists without a word being spoken - a silent, almost subconscious influence?

Last Wednesday (10th September), as a World Nuclear Association (WNA) conference commenced in London, the BBC Today programme announced that the campaign group Friends of the Earth (FOE) had made a "huge and controversial shift" away from their "in principle" opposition to nuclear power.

It was news to the group's campaigns director, Craig Bennett, who had earlier been interviewed for the programme as he relates in his blog.

On Friday the Guardian carried a blog by the BBC's widely respected environment analyst Roger Harrabin reiterating the view that FOE had made a "huge and controversial shift", also claiming that the group is now "less strongly anti-nuclear" and "is locked in an internal battle".

The analysis was way from accurate according to FOE - but the top-line message remembered by busy listeners and readers means damage will have been done - and at a critical time in terms of the impending EC nuclear state-aid and Hinkley C investment decisions, which have global implications.

What Friends of the Earth are really saying

FOE is saying, after refreshing their policy in 2013, that the high cost and long build-times of new nuclear reactors are currently more dominant concerns to them compared to nuclear accidents.

That concern reflects the vital fact that the £10s or even £100s of billions the Government is preparing to sink into nuclear power is money that will not go into the real answers - renewables and energy conservation. Worse, they will cause energy market distortions that will further undermine renewables.

So FOE's shift is one of relative concern from one of the several core stand-alone reasons against nuclear power (ie radioactive waste management, cost, proliferation, terrorism, major accidents, routine discharges and more recently climate distraction) to another.

That's fair enough given that the scale of emission reductions required to avoid dangerous global warming is increasing by the year and delays in cutting emissions due to poor energy investment is becoming a bigger and bigger issue.

It's also important to realise that as a solution to climate change, nuclear power is currently a 'bit player' producing just 2.6% of global energy: 2,600 TWh/y out of a global final energy demand around 100,000 TWh/y.

Nor does it offer significant opportunities for growth. The WNA optimistically estimates a nuclear capacity of 400GW - 640 GW by 2035. Taking a figure of 540 GW, that would generate around 4,000 TWh/y in 2035 of a projected global energy demand of 140,000 TWh/y -  just 2.9%.

Is it possible that the BBC Trust's links to EdF have effects down the ranks of the organisation and permeate the minds of journalists without a word being spoken - a silent, almost subconscious influence?

Nuclear would be hard pushed to ever supply beyond 5% of future energy demand unless fast reactors - the great hope of George Monbiot, Mark Lynas, Baroness Worthington and some others - were ever proven at utility scale.

And that's highly improbable, given the wasted billions invested in the technology, and decades of failure to deliver an economically viable solution. So nuclear power is hardly a crucial or key technology, as ministers keep arguing.

The other issues remain - and they are of critical importance

The increasing concern in the core issue of climate distraction does not mean that any other issues have materially reduced, the crumbling storage ponds etc at Sellafield are still a clear and present danger, probably more so year on year.

That's not a softening of stance, as Harrabin's whole article implies, rather its the opposite. Nuclear power is becoming an even more dangerous issue.

Indeed, considering the dawn of extreme asymmetric warfare (9/11), the rise of extremist groups (eg ISIS), dodgy foreign policy (2003 Iraq war, arms sales to Israel) and concerns about Iran's nuclear power motives, I would suggest that two other core issues, terrorism and proliferation, are also increasing in danger.

Oddly and alarmingly such major security issues have not featured in most environmental, political or public debate. Yet, the UK is on the brink of being in the forefront of rescuing a dangerous, dodgy and discredited nuclear industry from an investment abyss and placing it centre-stage of a low-carbon energy global policy.

Hitachi is even considering moving its HQ from a contaminated Japan to a lucrative London. The Government is essentially promoting the spread of nuclear technology, materials and expertise around the world, where a few kilos of plutonium or U233 (from thorium reactors) can make a bomb that can change that world.

Future generations will not thank us for missing a fast-evaporating opportunity to bottle as much of the nuclear weapons genie as possible - by switching to safe, abundant and increasingly affordable renewables.

Neither is the decaying waste a diminishing issue. A site for a geological repository has still not been identified, nor a convincing containment technology. Waste from new reactors would be significantly hotter, radioactively and thermally, and may be left in on-site Interim Stores indefinitely by default.

A refreshed look at nuclear power is not a pleasant sight: it shows the dangers are increasing.

Closing existing reactors - when was that an FOE campaign?

Harrabin goes on to say, and make something out of, a change in FOE's stance on closing existing nuclear reactors. I'm not sure what era Stephen Tindale was a FOE activist (apparently campaigning for existing stations to be closed down) but I never made any such calls in all the years I worked for FOE.

I was FOE Cymru's specialist energy campaigner in Wales from about the mid 1990's and then the main anti-nuclear campaigner (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) between about 2005-2010. We had a pragmatic attitude and focussed our limited energy and funding on more winnable campaigns.

So any shift regarding 'closure calls' would have been at least two decades ago and could not be portrayed as a recent shift or part of a refreshed 'less strongly anti-nuclear' stance.

And if FOE had made any significant 'shift' or change in policy on nuclear power (or any other campaign area) the proposed change would have had to be submitted as a written motion to the annual conference, won the Local Groups' vote and received the agreement of the Board.

It would have presumably then been announced as a change in the organisation's public material and press releases. It would not have been hidden to be 'found' by journalists digging around in consultants reports or reading way too much into comments and nuances in a live interview.

The experienced Harrabin says that the 'shift in policy was signalled in a little-reported policy paper last year'. The link provided goes to a report written by the Tyndall Centre commissioned by FOE (with disclaimers) and is not FOE policy.

Surely such an experienced journalist would be aware that a externally-written commissioned report is different to a internally-produced policy paper

Is the BBC unbiased on nuclear power?

The article is replete with other outrageous twists. There is something alarming when any journalist writes an article like this. It is more alarming that the BBC environment analyst is doing this.

Perhaps it is not surprising given that two BBC Trust figureheads of this world-respected media organisation are paid advisers to EdF: acting chair Diane Coyle and ex Chair Lord Patten; moreover Coyle is married to the BBC's technology correspondent.

Is it possible that the BBC Trust's links to EdF have effects down the ranks of the organisation and permeate the minds of journalists without a word being spoken - a silent, almost subconscious influence?

The Trust can say all it likes about having "no control over editorial content" - but it does not need control. Trust members also adjudicate editorial complaints so one could question the time and effort in complaining about Harrabin's article.

Regardless of any possible influence on any journalists it is remakable that BBC Trust members can receive money from such corporate interests - and even advise them on how to use the UK media to clinch one of the biggest multi-billion pound deals in British history.

Why won't the BBC report on the real nuclear stories?

The Hinkley C deal, and others, would have long-term planning and subsidy implications, radioactive waste management issues extending into geological time, potentially irreversible proliferation, foreign policy, energy security and terrorism risk consequences, and yes, still the potential for major accidents.

There are numerous outstanding Assessment Findings regarding the Hinkley C design which, if not resolved before construction were to commence, could be set in concrete in what are globally unproven new reactor designs.

On the morning of the WNA's conference in London the BBC should have reported relevant real issues such as AREVA's credit-negative rating (reported on Reuters) or the month's long safety shut-downs at EdF's Heysham and Hartlepool nuclear reactors which could lead to capacity-crunches and Grid distortions this winter.

Drumming up stories which imply that one of the main anti-nuclear campaign organisations has made some big policy shift on the quiet is far below what the BBC and Britain was or should be about.

The BBC should refresh its policy on corporate links and the Government should re-evaluate the costs of a new-build nuclear programme. These include significant, perhaps incalcuable, national and global security risks for many future generations in the UK and globally.

The costs also include the extraordinary and counterproductive dis-investment already under way in harnessing safe, largely indigenous renewable energy resources potentially using British low-carbon and carbon-negative climate solutions: both the cheapest form of low carbon electricity, onshore wind, and that with the fastest declining cost, solar PV, are in the firing line for cuts.

In the meantime, FOE should be given the media space to set the record straight given the likely damage caused by Harrabin's fault-ridden analysis.


Neil Crumpton is a writer, researcher and consultant on energy issues, and represents People-Against-Wylfa-B on the DECC-NGO nuclear Forum and the ONR stakeholder Forum. He was FOE's energy specialist campaigner, 1994-2010.

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