by Jonathan Leake and Dan Box
In the plush surroundings of the Army & Navy Club on London’s Pall Mall,
Mike Alexander, chief executive of British Energy, was holding court.
Assembled before him were more than a hundred leading figures from the
UK’s energy industry – all there at the behest of the Energy Industries Club,
an industry body that keeps its membership secret.
The point of the event, held just a few weeks ago on March 15, was to hear
a keynote speech, to be delivered by Alexander, with the title "UK Nuclear
Energy: fuel of the future?" It was not, however, a purely private affair.
Around the room were a selection of top opinion formers: analysts,
corporate traders and members of the media. The journalists could not
report the event directly – the invitations were based on so-called Chatham
House rules, meaning it was for "background use only". What they were
meant to take home was a message: nuclear power is coming back.
Alexander’s speech itself was simple. Within the next 20 years, he said,
Britain’s nuclear power stations will come to the end of their operating lives.
To meet the country’s climate-change targets, they must be replaced with
some form of power generation that does not produce the greenhouse gas
carbon dioxide. Anywhere else, that line might have prompted some sharp
questions. But for Alexander, whose company owns two-thirds of Britain’s
nuclear power stations, the audience was an unusually receptive one – and
not just because of the fine wines.
They laughed at his mockery of the nuclear-waste problem: his plants
produced a trivial volume of waste, equivalent to 24 double-decker buses a
year, he said. A ripple of "hear, hears" greeted his suggestion that the next
generation of reactors would produce half that waste and a lot more power.
And when he cracked a couple of jokes about windpower, gusts of raucous
laughter went round the room.
Taken on its own, it might have seemed like just another business lunch. For
some of the guests, however, the proceedings were a little familiar. They
had heard the same arguments and met the same people at a series of
other events in the past few months. It was all part of a carefully planned
strategy. From being a piece of history, the nuclear industry – a fading
dinosaur that has wasted billions and left a toxic legacy that will cost billions
more – is pushing itself back into the headlines, rebranded as the only
source of the cheap, secure and clean energy demanded by modern Britain.
The real "green" alternative…
On March 23, just a few days after the Army & Navy Club event, some of
Britain’s most senior business journalists found themselves invited for
breakfast at the discreet St Stephen’s Club in Westminster.
Their host was Amec, one of Britain’s leading engineering companies, and
the menu of speakers was even more select. David King, the government
chief scientist, Brian Wilson, the former energy minister, and Dipesh Shah,
chief executive of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, each spoke
about how Britain needed nuclear if it was to stop the lights going out. Again
the meeting was on Chatham House rules, but this time Wilson confirmed
what took place. "The industry has been working together to push nuclear
power up the agenda recently," he said. "The growing interest in climate
change and security of energy supply – plus the election – meant the time
Nuclear power had been in the news earlier this year, but only sporadically.
It was after these and other events that the articles turned from a trickle to a
torrent – and suddenly nuclear was big news again. Nothing had occurred
politically. There had been no reports, scandals, technical breakthroughs or
new policies. What had happened was that a group of journalists had taken
the bait offered them by a few canny public relations experts.
It was a spectacular PR coup, but how had it happened and who was behind
For those who were watching, the signs were there many months ago when
some of the biggest firms in the nuclear business began a round of
recruitment, taking on high-powered new media directors, political advisers
and public affairs companies. Last October, British Energy appointed Craig
Stevenson, formerly Monsanto’s top UK lobbyist, as head of government
affairs. Then, in December, BE enlisted Helen Liddell, the former energy
minister, to provide "strategic advice" on a short contract for a fee of roughly
£15,000 (Liddell has since been made Britain’s ambassador to Australia). All
this was on top of the £1million BE paid to another PR firm, Financial
Meanwhile, the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency, the new public body
charged with cleaning up the mess from Britain’s previous nuclear program,
poached Jon Phillips, Heathrow Airport’s head of communications. He will
cost well over £70,000 a year, and will have a deputy and nine other press
officers working under him. But Phillips was the man who led the British
Airports Authority’s successful campaign for a fifth terminal at Heathrow
despite furious public opposition. The nuclear industry needs people with
that kind of track record.
At the same time, Nirex, the waste disposal body that became independent
of the nuclear industry last month, has taken on the Promise public relations
firm to promote a multimillion-pound rebranding and renaming exercise (this
is on top of an existing contract with Good Relations). And last year the
UKAEA employed Grayling Political Strategy to help raise its profile.
All this activity, documented in trade magazines such as PR Week, shows
that in the year or so before the general election, the nuclear industry slowly
but surely put together a classy public relations act. And it was not just
targeting politicians and the media.
In briefings around the City of London, the energy companies have been
scaring the captains of British industry silly with warnings of how half
Britain’s generating capacity – coal as well as nuclear – will have to shut
down by 2020. They did not have to exaggerate. The widely shouted fact
that all but one of Britain’s nuclear plants will have to shut by 2023 has
obscured the similar fate awaiting most of the country’s coal-fired stations,
which produce 36 per cent of the nation’s power. They will close because
the EU’s Large Combustion Plant directive will set efficiency and pollution
standards that most cannot possibly meet when it takes effect in 2008.
For the nuclear lobby, Britain’s increasingly desperate energy outlook
presented a golden opportunity. Over the past six months, the result of the
industry’s PR drive has been a significant change in the mood of major
corporations towards nuclear power.
Politicians were carefully targeted, too. For example, the Nuclear Industry
Association, the trade association for British nuclear companies, has
secured for itself a role running the secretariat to the all-party parliamentary
group on nuclear energy. As the election approached, its seminars became
increasingly apocalyptic – warning that if the government did not embrace
nukes soon it would be just a few years before the lights started winking out,
with Labour assured a place in history as the party responsible.
Keith Parker, chief executive of the NIA, confirms that the industry carefully
co-ordinated and exploited the build-up to the election. "We discussed these
things a lot," he said, "and we did see the election as an opportunity. There
were several other things coming at the same time, such as the
government’s review of renewables [due out in June]. It gave us a good
chance to raise the profile of nuclear power."
The campaign co-ordinated by the NIA was designed to focus not on the
historically dubious benefits of nuclear power but on the shortcomings of all
the alternatives. Windpower and other renewables were "intermittent and
unreliable"; a switch to gas meant relying on "dodgy" foreign exporters; and
coal was simply primitive. But the campaign was also carefully finessed:
none of the rival energy sources was dismissed outright; instead, the
lobbyists stressed the need for a mixture of generating capacity – with a
revived nuclear industry at its heart.
Civil servants at the Department of Trade and Industry also saw the election
as a chance to promote nuclear power. A few days after May 5, a
confidential DTI briefing paper arguing the case for nuclear energy was
leaked to the Sunday newspapers. Written by the director general of the
department’s energy group, Joan MacNaughton, for the incoming Secretary
of State for Trade and Industry, Alan Johnson, it said: "The case for looking
at the nuclear question again quickly is that if we want to avoid a very sharp
fall in nuclear’s contribution to energy supplies (some fall is certain and has
already begun), we should need to act soon given the long lead times (10
years?) in getting a new nuclear station up and running."
As leaks go it was audacious, blatantly aimed at ambushing Johnson before
he had even read his brief, let alone mastered it. But it was also the
culmination of a pattern of briefings in which senior DTI officials have tried to
swing the nuclear debate their way. At an international energy conference in
Paris last June, the director of the DTI energy strategy group, Adrian Gault,
laid out the department’s vision of how Britain would get its electricity by
2050 and still cut greenhouse-gas emissions. Fundamental to that vision
was that nuclear energy would be producing up to half the country’s power.
Gault’s Paris speech was delivered behind closed doors, but soon made its
way onto the front pages of the UK’s national newspapers. His pro-nuclear
message has since been reinforced by the DTI’s highest-profile
personalities. The week after the election, David King was openly saying
that, in order to hit Britain’s climate-change targets, "we need another
generation of nuclear-fission stations".
The DTI’s commitment to building a new round of nuclear plants goes back
a long way and extends much further than mere speeches and briefings. In
2001, the DTI nuclear industries directorate signed up the department and
Britain to taking part in an international consortium to build the next
generation of nuclear reactors. Whichever designs are chosen they will
almost certainly be built by an American or British company.
For the UK (and the DTI) a nuclear revival would mean billions pouring into
science faculties and engineering companies.
This prospect could help explain the growing interest being taken in the
nuclear debate by august bodies such as the Royal Society, the Royal
Academy of Engineering and the Institution of Civil Engineers, which have
also been discreetly lobbying the government to look again at nuclear power.
Last year the RAE put out a paper on electricity prices suggesting that new
nuclear plants could produce power far more cheaply than even coal. For
those with long memories, it was reminiscent of the "power too cheap to
meter" promise made by Walter Marshall, one of the architects of Britain’s
atomic reactor program in the 1950s. But, tellingly, the RAE has also told the
government that it must create a market for nuclear by ensuring the "long-
term stability of electricity prices". This is shorthand for the nuclear industry’s
real agenda: a new system of subsidies to ensure it is never again exposed
to the chill winds of a free market. The industry even has a name for it: the
Security of Supply Obligation.
This is what will lie at the heart of the next big lobbying push – ensuring the
obligation (to pay) falls directly on consumers.
Ian Fell, an RAE fellow and former professor of energy conversion at
Newcastle University who now works as a consultant to the government and
industry, has trodden the corridors of power at the DTI many times. As an
eminent insider, he is well placed to have the last word on the nuclear charm
"There isn’t exactly a conspiracy to bring it up the agenda," he says, "but in
the past few months civil servants have been saying [to] wait till around the
election, because that’s when nuclear power would become a big issue
"It happened as they predicted."
Jonathan Leake is the Sunday Times environment editor.
Dan Box writes on energy for the Sunday Times.