Nuclear consultation: Public trust in Government

Paul Dorfman
7 November 2008

Paul Dorfman (Warwick, University of Warwick): Part two of the Democratic Audit series on consultation (see also part one: Taking Consultation Seriously)

Consultation is an essential component of effective, democratic governance which commands public confidence. For this reason the new government Code of Practice on Consultation is correct to emphasise the need for it to constitute a genuine input into the policy-making process, rather than being a mere ‘tick-box’ exercise; for it to be transparent; for it to be held over a sufficiently long period of time; and for it to properly address the audience for which it is intended. Yet over an issue as important as the future of nuclear energy, government consultations repeatedly failed fully to meet these criteria, and stood condemned both by a professional standards body and the judiciary.

The Failed First Nuclear Consultation: the Energy Review

In the 2003 Energy White Paper the Government claimed that while the economics of building new nuclear power stations were at the time unattractive, such a policy might be necessary to enable the UK to meet its environmental targets for carbon reduction. However, the government guaranteed that ‘before any decision to proceed with the building of new nuclear power stations there will need to be the fullest public consultation’. Then in July 2006, in its Energy Challenge paper, the government announced the decision that ‘nuclear has a role to play in the future UK generating mix’. Yet, far from being preceded by the promised ‘fullest public consultation’, the Energy Review process which had been conducted was widely and authoritatively condemned as inadequate.

The chairman of the Trade and Industry Committee noted that the Energy Review was ‘a rubber-stamping exercise for a decision the Prime Minister took some time ago’. The Sustainable Development Commission concluded that the Review ‘offers no information whatsoever on what any new nuclear programme might look like and people are being asked to comment on the potential contribution of a new nuclear programme without any of the key aspects (regarding reactor design, cost, waste management, liability issues, and so on) having been addressed’. The House of Commons Trade and Industry Committee was concerned ‘about the manner in which this Energy Review has been conducted', noting that ‘throughout the process, the Government had hinted strongly that it has already made its mind up on nuclear power’. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee said: ‘The nature of the current Energy Review is unclear - whether it is specifically fulfilling the Prime Minister's desire to make a decision on nuclear, whether it is a review of electricity generating policy, whether it is a wider review of progress against the [2003] Energy White Paper, or whether it is reopening the broad policy debate which the White Paper itself encompassed.’ The Environmental Audit Committee was also concerned that the Review ‘does not appear to have resulted from a due process of monitoring and accountability, and that the process by which it is being conducted appears far less structured and transparent than the process by which the White Paper itself was reached’.

Following the publication of The Energy Challenge, Greenpeace brought a successful judicial review over the conclusion the government had reached on nuclear new build. In February 2007, in the High Court, Mr Justice Sullivan, delivered a devastating verdict. Describing the consultation process as ‘misleading’, ‘seriously flawed’, and ‘manifestly inadequate and unfair’ he concluded that the legitimate expectations of Greenpeace of the fullest public consultation had not been met; and that consequently the conclusions that the Government had reached on nuclear power could not be validly drawn.

In other words, the 2006 consultation had failed. It was ill-conceived, carried out over too short a timescale, and did not involve the public in any meaningful way. Although the government had promised ‘the fullest public consultation’, what it offered was a tick-box exercise that provided limited useful information, and did not allow for full and frank disclosure of all the important issues underpinning energy production and nuclear risk.

The judicial review determined that fresh discussions on the economics of new nuclear build, and how to store the resulting radioactive waste, were needed. Consultation, it was stated, was a ‘a right, not a privilege’. So the government embarked on a new consultation to encompass the wider ‘principles’ of whether more nuclear power was needed, and Gordon Brown was said to be keen to lead the debate over Britain's future energy policy, given that it would be one of the key decisions to be taken under his premiership. Yet, in an unguarded moment following the judicial review ruling, the then Prime Minister Tony Blair's response was: ‘This will change the consultation, this won't affect the policy at all’.

In May 2007 the government published its Energy White Paper ‘Meeting the Energy Challenge’, which covered a range of energy issues including nuclear power. At the same time, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI, in June 2007 renamed the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform – BERR), launched a consultation document entitled ‘The Future of Nuclear Power: The Role of Nuclear Power in a Low Carbon UK Economy’, seeking ‘views on the information and arguments set out on whether the private sector should be allowed to build new nuclear power stations’.

Yet there remained a concern that the way government approached this consultation may have advanced a pre-ordained solution to a well-rehearsed problem. The DTI, which ran the consultation, had already said that it continued to believe in nuclear power. Indeed, during a parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group conference, Lord Whitty, former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy, said that the government was going to give new nuclear power an ‘amber light’, a ‘presumption for’ in the Energy White Paper, including pre-licensing of reactor design. Furthermore, the Government had stated that its preliminary view was that it was ‘in the public interest to give private energy companies the option to invest in nuclear power stations’. Surprisingly, and perhaps unwisely, Gordon Brown told MPs in July 2007, ‘we have made the decision to continue with nuclear power’ even before the new consultation had run half its course.

The New Nuclear Consultation - ‘Talking Energy: The Future of Nuclear Power’

Over the consultation period DTI/BERR requested full written responses, published documents, hosted a web-site, and held 12 regional meetings with representatives from industry, local authorities, NGOs and other organisations - suggesting that ‘these meetings enable us to explore in more detail the views of interested parties’.

The length of the consultation period (May to October 2007) was longer than the twelve-week minimum required by the Code of Practice on Consultation. However, given the complexity and importance of the subject, more time should have been allowed. Moreover, the consensual aim of the process began to unravel with the withdrawal by Greenpeace, the Green Alliance, WWF and Friends of the Earth from the consultation process. The withdrawal by the NGO’s was said to be born of frustration - the environmental groups noted that the ‘consultation did not provide fair or balanced information’ and ‘failed to properly consider the alternatives to nuclear power’.

Perhaps the defining moment in the consultation occurred on Saturday 8 September 2007, when nine ‘Talking Energy: The Future of Nuclear Power’ citizen deliberative events took place across the UK for members of the public in Belfast, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Exeter, Leicester, Liverpool, London, Newcastle and Norwich. BERR claimed that these events would ‘enable us to understand the views of the public after they have heard the key facts and arguments in the consultation. Discussion at the events addressed the same key questions in the consultation document’. BERR stated that the total of 1,000 people who together attended these meetings were recruited to be broadly demographically representative of the UK population. However, this claim seemed to be undermined by the attendance, perhaps surprisingly as a representative member of the public, of the former head of the DTI ‘Public Understanding of Science’ project at the London event.

At each citizens' event, films, presentation slides and handout sheets were used as stimulus materials, and departmental officials were on hand to advise the public on any technical or scientific matter. However, some rather contentious information was presented to the public by BERR’s nuclear involvement consultant Opinion Leader Research (OLR). For example, hand-out documents at the events stilled disquiet by making three key statements on nuclear ‘safety and security’ issues:

  •  'According to a recent report from The European Commission, a major nuclear accident in the UK is less than the chance of a meteorite over a kilometre wide hitting the earth'.
  •  'The Office for Civil Nuclear Security is satisfied with arrangements to guard against terrorism and believes that allowing new nuclear power stations to be built would be unlikely to increase the risks of terrorist attacks'.
  •  'Based on the advice of the independent nuclear regulators, and the advances in the design of nuclear power stations, the Government’s initial view is that the security and safety risks of new nuclear power stations are very small’.

On the radioactive waste issue they allayed any concerns by concluding that:

  • 'The Government believes that new waste could be managed in the same way as... our existing or legacy waste'.
  • ‘Waste and decommissioning costs would make only a small proportion of the total costs of building and operating nuclear power stations (less than 5 per cent) provided that the fund for their decommissioning and waste disposal can be built up over 40-60 year lifetime of a station - just like a pension plan'.

The literature offered reassurances on the potential for future radiological accidents and incidents by noting that:

  • 'There have been no events relating to a civil nuclear power station in the UK which have had any consequence outside the nuclear power station itself'.

On the security of future nuclear fuel supply, it was claimed that:

  • 'The nuclear industry believes that accessible and affordable uranium from reserves we already know about in politically stable regions can be relied on for the full lifetime of a fleet of new UK power stations'.

There was also an attempt to put at rest any concerns about the possibility that the UK nuclear engineering industry may encounter a technical skills gap, by commenting that:

  • 'Business representatives... are confident about the UK nuclear industry's ability to meet the demand of nuclear new build'.

Twinning Global Warming and Nuclear Power

Understandably, a core theme at the citizens events was the unequivocal nature of the imminent threat of global warming - and a substantial amount of time was spent detailing this threat. Here, BERR seemed to simplify and build on recent academic research that, perhaps unsurprisingly, revealed that people were much more likely to accept nuclear new-build if it was presented as a significant part of the solution to the threat of global warming. In fact that research also clearly stated that the issue was much more complex, and suggested that this finding should not be isolated from wider cross-cutting environmental contexts. However, OLR persisted with this twinning of global warming and nuclear power.

One of the most significant aspects of this rhetoric was the way in which the nuclear agenda seamlessly entwined and translated the threat of global warming. In this sense, ‘nuclear’ was provided as a resolution to the problem of how best to discharge a duty to diminish climate change - however, this sleight of hand was performed without clear reference to how the former related to the latter.

Interestingly it was only very late in the 1-day events that the, by now tired, members of the public were given another hand-out which, half way down page 17, noted that the rebuilding of the UK’s nuclear fleet would mitigate only 4 per cent of our CO2 emissions.

At the very end of these meetings, OLR carried out a voting exercise – something that is almost unheard of in ‘deliberative’ democratic practice. Opposition to new nuclear power stations was strongest in the North East – at the meeting in Newcastle, only 43 per cent of people backed a new generation of nuclear plants, with 41 per cent against. Across the country as a whole the margin was only eight per cent, with 45 per cent in favour and 37 per cent against. This outcome suggests that the government will face an uphill battle in arguing convincingly that the ‘voting’ exercises undertaken by BERR provided a mandate for public acceptance of new nuclear build.

Furthermore key assumptions underpinning the government’s approach to the nuclear consultation remain open to critical analysis. There is profound concern that these assumptions have framed the questions asked by the government during the nuclear energy consultation, and were designed to provide particular and limited answers - and those answers risk locking UK energy futures into an inflexible and vulnerable pathway that will prove unsustainable.

Nonetheless, the government claimed the new consultation process as justifying its announcement in January 2008 that ‘new nuclear power stations should have a role to play in this country’s future energy mix…it would be in the public interest to allow energy companies the option of investing in new nuclear power stations’.

Those who harboured doubts about the process were provided with further confirmation in October this year. Greenpeace had filed a complaint with the Market Research Standards Board about the polling questions and the materials used at the deliberative events. The Board found that OLR had breached its Code of Conduct, stating the OLR’s ‘information was inaccurately or misleadingly presented, or was imbalanced, which gave rise to a material risk of respondents being led towards a particular answer.’

The public mistrust of policy decision-making on issues involving nuclear risk is a defining issue. It was in order to overcome this lack of faith that the government consulted with the public about the potential role of nuclear power in future energy policy. But if the widespread belief that institutions wishing to impose their arbitrary actions upon the public may be secretive was to be dispelled, all the key framing propositions and assumptions underpinning the nuclear power consultation needed to be made explicit in any case that was put forward for new nuclear power stations. To access true public opinion about such a high-stakes issue, the public consultation should have been clear, integrated, independent, and conducted over a long enough time-frame. Failure to do so has left the government vulnerable to legal challenge and will lead to hostility and mistrust of any future energy policy decisions.

The questions are many, and important. The central one is: how can government ask the public to take a decision ‘in principle’ for more nuclear power when significant ‘what if’ issues - such as uncertainty about nuclear fuel supply and manufacture, vulnerability to attack, radiation waste, radiation risk and health effects, reactor decommissioning, reactor design and siting, costs of electricity-generating technologies, energy distribution models, true renewable and energy efficiency modelling – have not been resolved in practice?

An accumulating public sense of a lack of independence and a lack of transparency behind government initiatives in this area, and a hidden industry agenda belittling the problems seem to emit a strong whiff of mortgaging the long-term future to short-term interests. The issue is one of trust in government.  

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