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Nuclear Power 40 Years On

Updated: Dec 1, 2021

- By Sheila Durie, author of 'Fuelling the Nuclear Arms Race: The Links Between Nuclear Power and Nuclear Weapons' (Pluto Press. 1982).

"On 7th May 1979, I found myself suffering from vertigo at the top of the Walter Scott Monument on Princes Street in Edinburgh. Together with a group of 10 other anti-nuclear protestors, we had just barricaded ourselves into the monument, climbed to the top and hung a 50 foot banner saying ‘Stop Torness’ from the top. We enjoyed waving to the people in the Jenner’s tearoom. We only came down when a party of schoolkids turned up at the ticket office and were disappointed to find us in possession. We decided to come down, having achieved our aim, which was to get additional press coverage for the site occupation at Torness itself. By the time we came down, there was a huge crowd of supporters cheering us as we were bundled into the waiting vans and taken off to Gayfield Square police station.

Today, non-violent direct action is at the forefront of the news again, as protesters from ‘Insulate Britain’ are blocking roads to raise awareness of the role of inadequate home insulation and heating in exacerbating CO2 emissions and climate change. They are also being arrested. And they are also being vilified by government. People all over Scotland are gearing up to protest at COP26 and no doubt there will be ‘civil disobedience’ there as well, and more talk of restricting the right to protest.

In 40 years, I think, very little has changed, and yet everything has changed. The Torness Declaration was adopted by the 4,000 protestors who occupied the Torness site. Its messages and demands are as pertinent today as they were then. It reads:

‘As an affiliation of groups and individuals we declare our total and uncompromising opposition to the construction of a nuclear power station here at Torness. Nuclear power threatens all living creatures and their natural environment. It concentrates power in the hands of a few, necessitates a military-style secrecy and undermines the principles of human liberty. A nuclear power station at Torness would be another irrevocable step towards a future of which we want no part.

We therefore demand: - an immediate and permanent halt to the construction of any further nuclear power stations - an urgent and vigorous energy conservation programme - a cleaner, safer and more efficient use of our fossil fuels - the radical re-channelling of resources into wave, wind and solar power and other forms of renewable energy - the provision of socially useful work for all in energy and other fields.

Our stand is in defence of the health and safety of ourselves, our future generations and of all living things on this planet. We announce that we are prepared to take all non-violent steps necessary to prevent the construction of a nuclear power station at Torness.’

We failed to ‘Stop Torness’. However, no new nuclear power stations have been built in Scotland since Torness and, given the operating problems it is having, nuclear electricity generation here may soon be over. Nuclear power stations account for 19% of the UK’s electricity generation, but almost half of this capacity is due to be retired by 2025. At the time of the Torness demonstrations, the sense of a climate emergency was not apparent. We had hardly ever heard of global warming and there were no discussions of net zero targets. We still thought coal and oil had some role to play in energy supply, we just needed to make it less ‘dirty’ and polluting. Acid rain from coal powered stations was of more concern than emissions.

We were focused on the economic, political and social reasons why investment in nuclear power should be abandoned in favour of energy conservation and renewables. We had researched the health effects of low level radiation, the huge unacknowledged costs and danger from future radioactive waste disposal, the link between the military need for plutonium for weapons production and the smokescreen provided by the civil nuclear power programme. We were concerned with the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and that the need to transport nuclear materials in the dead of night through sleeping Scottish towns made us all vulnerable. We knew there were alternatives to nuclear, but they had yet to be built in the UK on any great scale. We foresaw that there were new jobs in insulation, energy conservation and renewable and thought this was where we needed to focus effort and investment.

40 years on and we have made huge progress with electricity generation from renewable sources. In 2020, Scotland generated 97.4% of its electricity from renewables. Wind farms on land and sea are common. Many homes have solar panels, some buildings have biomass boilers. Wave and tidal power have yet to be fully exploited due to the engineering challenges posed, but even here progress is now being made with full scale models generating electricity in Scapa Flow.

We now need the same level of progression with generating heat for domestic consumption. At present, only 6.5% of heat is produced by renewable means. District heating is now being seriously considered for some developments, although even 40 years ago it was commonplace in Scandinavia. We have more R&D on electricity storage, heat pumps are common, new methods of generating hydrogen fuel using renewable are being explored as well as other technical innovations. Community energy generation is a growing trend, which can make a significant contribution in future to meeting local electricity demand. Electric vehicles are the future.

Nuclear has by and large been defeated by economics – it is just too expensive – and of the 8 new projects approved in the last decade only one has commenced construction with lengthy delays due to difficulties with the investment packages.

Now however, we even have some Green Party activists advocating support for nuclear as a way of meeting net zero targets in energy generation. I believe this to be wrong thinking. 40 years further on and we have still not done the basics – insulated our housing stock. This is a much more cost effective way of reducing our emissions. Half the energy consumed in Scotland is in the form of heat. Our homes account for around 15% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions through their use of oil and gas for heating and hot water, and the loss of energy through poor insulation.

New homes are still being built to minimum standards for water and energy efficiency. I watched a Channel 4 news story just last week which highlighted shoddy workmanship, cost cutting and consequently devastating heat loss in new housing developments. Individuals and families will be bearing the cost of lack of government regulation and developer greed for decades to come unless investment is channelled towards helping households insulate their homes. Until we can do the basics – offer warm homes for everyone which have a net zero impact on the planet – we should not even consider building new nuclear capacity. It is still the same message, 40 years on."

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