A Nuclear Union

Not long after his colleague, the Prime Minister, had finished branding anyone in favour of running their own country a dangerous extremist, Alister Jack announced that he expected a ‘Unionist regime’ to be in power in Holyrood by 2026 as he confirmed plans for a new Scottish nuclear power station. As Dr Johnston-Smith put it in response: “Ten years ago Scottish Tories/Labour/LibDems offered voters a warm and collegiate future encapsulated by the two word slogan “Better Together”. Today Scotland is offered a “Unionist regime” that will impose UK policy on the Scottish Parliament That’s quite the shift in branding!”

It is indeed. The extent to which the ‘offer’ has descended from a ‘partnership of equals’ to a relationship of open contempt and closure is remarkable.

Those of us long enough in the tooth will remember the carnival atmosphere as thousands descended on Torness to object to the nuclear power plant being planned in the late 1970s. Local farmers with fork-life style tractors manoeuvred hay bails into position to create steps, and people swarmed over the fences to occupy the land. This was in 1979.

The Global Non Violent Database tells us: “In the autumn of 1977, SCRAM held its launching public meeting, which brought together the activists who would turn SCRAM into one of the country’s most dynamic and successful anti-nuclear protest groups.” This would evolve into the Torness Alliance, a nationwide network of activists whose first action was to occupy and start renovating Half Moon Cottage in the North East corner of the Torness site in September 1978. After a couple of months the cottage had become an important and vibrant symbol of opposition.

The GNVD tells us: “The next action of the Torness Alliance was the Torness Gathering, in May 1979, one of the campaign’s most important protests. Organized by the Alliance, SCRAM, and the Lothian and Borders Anti-Nuclear Group, the mass occupation of the construction site was joined by the London Greenpeace, the Socialist Workers Party, as well as by anarchist, pacifist, environmental, and direct action groups. Over 10,000 people camped in a field close to Torness for a weekend of talks, music, and discussion. Through discussions and “affinity groups” they decided to occupy the construction site and hold a day of direct action intended to halt construction work. The site was protected by a six-foot barbed wire fence. One early Monday morning, enjoying wide media coverage, the protesters filed over the fence using bales of hay as steps. This resulted in several hundred members of the Torness Alliance confronting workers, security personnel, and police. According to press entries that followed the actions, it was one of the largest acts of civil disobedience ever seen in the UK.”

Fast forward forty-four years and you can imagine the same thing should ‘Union’ Jack’s dream come true. Not only are Britain’s current nuclear plants in a perilous condition, Torness itself will be closed early due to safety concerns. As the Ferret reported: “Spreading cracks at the Torness nuclear power station in East Lothian mean that it will have to close two years earlier than planned, according to its operator, EDF Energy.”

The Ferret described how: “A similar reactor at Hunterston B nuclear power station in North Ayrshire was permanently closed down on 26 November 2021, after 46 years of operation. The station’s second reactor is due to be turned off before 7 January 2022, 15 months earlier than previously planned.”

“Hunterston is 12 years older than Torness, and has been plagued by increasing cracks in its graphite cores caused by radiation bombardment. The Ferret reported in October 2020 that EDF estimated that one of Hunterston’s reactors could end up with nearly a thousand cracks.”

Not only are these stations massively costly to build (Hinkley Point C in Somerset will end up costing £46bn according to EDF), they are expensive to repair and cost vast amounts to treat their waste. More than that they are hugely vulnerable to terrorist attack or to be future-proofed against climate breakdown in terms of sea rise).

If Alister Jack is committed to his Homer Simpson impersonation then it will give people in Scotland a much-needed target for opposition to the Union just as S.C.R.A.M did in the late 70s and early 80s. In truth though everyone knows there is no chance of Jack being in office past Christmas.

In a world of EV battery storage, cheap solar and wind, micro-renewables and air and ground-source heat pumps, nuclear is a legacy energy source, massively expensive, long and complex to build and deeply unpopular. John Swinney has declared first that the Secretary of State had said nothing at all to the Scottish Government about his plans, and second that the Scottish Government had no intention to co-operate in planning new nuclear while they’re entire focus was on renewables.

But if Jack is unlikely to install new nuclear in Scotland, perhaps his replacement will. Looking at Starmer’s oddly babyish ‘My First Steps for Change’ programme, much of the language and focus echoes Conservative policy. You can see a scenario in which Labour’s much vaunted ‘GB Energy’ scheme embraces new nuclear with a hint of Wilsonian ‘White Heat of Technology’. Of course we don’t need more energy we need less. We need, in light of climate breakdown to be looking at mass insulation, and an energy descent plan, using smart technologies and better housing to drastically reduce our energy use across domestic and post-industrial areas.

This won’t be easy, but then we have picked all the ‘low-hanging fruits’ of climate emissions in Scotland. As Dominic Hinde writes: “Climate change is not a policy problem that can just be legislated for and farmed out to civil society and private enterprise. One of the surprising things about Scotland is that it has made huge progress in an area it does not directly control (energy generation), but failed to make landmark inroads into emissions in areas it could radically act on such as transport and urban planning. Indeed, as many have argued, moving to a carbon neutral society means wholesale reform of the state and its levers, or a new political economy of the state and sub-state. Climate change is multi-scalar, transcends the usual reference points of contemporary politics, and cannot be solved using targeted intervention within the existing planning, economic and energy regimes.”

Given this, what hope is there in a country dominated by the Bain Principle and in which mass opposition was whipped-up at the prospect of a bottle recycling scheme? Imagine what would happen if anyone actually proposed something genuinely radical, of the sort of order of change that Hinde lays out.

Talking of the recent abandonment of our climate reduction targets Hinde concludes: “So abandoning carbon targets is perhaps not merely a failure of leadership on the part of the Scottish Government, but a recognition of the fact a decarbonised developed society cannot be brought about without fairly radical reimaging of day-to-day life. The story of decarbonisation in Scotland is not merely one of missed emissions targets, but of the spectre of large-scale societal transformation that remains chimeric.”

This idea of ‘large-scale societal transformation’ being chimeric is certainly true of Just Transition, of the conversion away from petrol and diesel cars, of implementing basic insulation standards in new builds (or even having new builds), or of creating popular and affordable micro-renewables.

This is not because such things wouldn’t be hugely popular, it is because the task of a ‘fairly radical reimaging of day-to-day life’ is raged against by Scotland’s editors columnists and gatekeepers, and our political leaders consistently fail to help conjure such a re-imagining. At a time when we need bold popular leadership we have timidity and managerialism, and at a time when we need the autonomy to act – we are constrained by forces which demand fealty and assimilation.

It’s not clear to what extent, but given the displays of opportunism every week, it would not be surprising if an incoming Labour government jumped on the bandwagon of the backlash against Net Zero or basic climate-appropriate policy.

Right across Europe you can see the backlash against the most basic (often inadequate) ecological and climate-responsive policies partly because the very idea of “fairly radical reimaging of day-to-day life” is absolutely terrifying for those who currently profit from our planet-wrecking economy. In the Netherlands the far-right Geert Wilders has entered a coalition government and plans to eviscerate environmental policy, party on the back of the hysteria surrounding farming reform (a hysteria backed and cultivated by some key voices here at home).

Echoing far-right sentiment across Europe, Wilders’ own manifesto pledges to give “no billions to unnecessary climate and nitrogen pollution policy” and “stop the hysterical reduction of CO2”, while taking an axe to climate policy. “For decades, we have been made to fear climate change and although the predicted disaster scenarios – over the whole world – were supposed to get more and more extreme, none of them have happened,” it claimed.

This sentiment is widespread and morphs and merges with Brexity and Trumpian narratives about the ‘metropolitan elite’ and disdain for ‘experts’. Such ideas find fertile soil in ordinary people who have twigged that often environmental changes – which could be implemented with wholesale public and transformational change – is instead down-streamed to individuals, at their own cost. Therefore big public changes that could benefit millions – such as nationalising public energy systems and massively reducing bills – or transport or housing or food being re-structured in light of the climate emergency – are instead left to the vagaries of the market, and to individual cost.

In the Netherlands, under Wilders coalition with the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), daytime motorway speeds, which had been reduced to 62mph to reduce nitrogen pollution, will return to 80mph, subsidised “red diesel” will be reintroduced for farmers, and manure pollution measures will be scrapped. Targets for the introduction of heat pumps will be abandoned, and four nuclear plants will be built. Jack would approve.

The language of Wilders may seem extreme, but it is echoed across Europe and can be heard in your media and seen on your timeline by Britain and Scotland’s right and far-right as they tremble at the prospect of the changes that are coming. The problem with this approach – to deny climate crisis – or deflect any necessary change – is that it’s only delaying the inevitable. Change is coming, change is here right now. Your living in it. To deny as such is just to ignore the very world we see around us. You can weaponise the climate catastrophe as much as you like, you can back unsustainable agriculture, you can take a side in the (fictional) ‘war on the motorist’, you can demonise climate refugees, but the problems of food production, water pollution, air pollution and their subsequent diseases don’t magically disappear. Equally the blatant racism and xenophobia that tracks these politics isn’t going to disappear whether its Wilders plans to cut immigration or Starmer’s new ‘Border Security Command’.

If much of the anti-green backlash can be seen through the prism of what Naomi Klein calls ‘diagonalism’. According to Joe Hoover: “Diagonalism is a phenomenon where “disparate strains” from across the political spectrum meet up. It is where, for instance, writes Klein, “soft-focus wellness influencers make common cause with fire-breathing far-right propagandists.”

This is the tragedy of the popular anti-ecological backlash currently being weaponised and amplified by the far-right. It feeds off a distrust of elites and uses it to entrench elite power; it feeds off alternative sub-cultures and turns them into forums for paranoia; it feeds off distrust of the media and ends up in Trumpian chaos.

Underneath all of this is the threat posed by renewables, and particularly community or neighbourhood scaled renewables to Big Energy profits. The idea of devolving-down energy to local and micro scales is terrifying for corporate energy giants. The idea of ‘free energy’ (other than build and maintenance costs) does not compute with the idea of energy as a commodity to be sold – our current system. Further, new nuclear cannot happen without massive state subsidy, a great irony for its Tory backers.

So we have the prospect of a Unionist ‘regime’ (their words) creating radical infrastructure changes – such as new nuclear plants – that will literally build into the very fabric of our lives – centralised pan-UK energy systems. In just the way that the SNP and Scottish Governments haven’t been able to or willing to – be bold and build infrastructure that would facilitate self-determination and independence – now we can envisage Unionist politicians doing so in favour of evermore and closer union.

This was the irony of Rishi Sunak calling Scottish nationalists ‘extremists’. We really aren’t but we definitely need to be. The need for radical thought and action among a newly-restructured and wholly re-imagined independence movement is very clear. This is not just in response to the ‘muscular unionism’ we see which talks of ‘regimes’ and breezily treats Scottish people with complete contempt, instead it needs radicalised and re-thought because we can’t ignore the socio-ecological crisis staring us in the face. As Hinde writes: “Climate change … transcends the usual reference points of contemporary politics, and cannot be solved using targeted intervention within the existing planning, economic and energy regimes.” This is true of almost all of the challenges we face: none of the regimes and structures for trying to address 19th and 20th C problems are fit for purpose anymore, and the faster we face this reality the better. There’s no time to lose.

Large-scale societal transformation may remain chimeric, but climate catastrophe does not.

Comments (10)

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  1. Tom Parkhill says:

    Last week I got into an argument with a guy who was saying climate change was a hoax. This is guy who would probably consider himself left wing and alternative. He was complaining about the lack of local shops and at the same time ranting about the danger of 15-minute cities – he didn’t see any contradiction there. Apparently Oxford (and Milan) is shut down like North Korea, with residents unable to travel to buy food outside their neighbourhoods. This will be news to residents there.

    I work in science communication, so I should have known better, but there was no way of shaking his beliefs. As has been said, those who have adopted ideas which are counterfactual, will not be convinced by just facts. Positions become like supporting a football team, unshakable.

    I think that the move to convince people of the facts about climate change has been successful for what it’s worth, but those against climate change have simply moved the goalposts: now they argue on different premises, where facts don’t matter. The same is true of much populist politics. I’m not viscerally opposed to nuclear power, but I am sure of one thing; the arguments for and against will not be based on facts, and the decision will be presented as a victory, not as a reasoned best choice for us at the moment. This is the danger which flows from Gove’s “had enough of experts”.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    Yes, I particularly agree with the paragraph beginning:
    “Underneath all of this is the threat posed by renewables, and particularly community or neighbourhood scaled renewables to Big Energy profits.”
    One could go further, and say that local energy self-sufficiency runs counter-current to state-corporate behaviour-modification goals towards creating individualistic, dependent, short-termist, self-gratifying, speciesist, money-oriented and politically-quietist consumers.

    1. Wul says:

      @ SD Definitely!

      People round my bit are getting all excited because Scottish Energy Networks are upgrading their mains electric supply cable “Free of charge !!”

      This will allow them all to purchase new heat pumps, electric cars, solar panels, lithium battery power-banks and assorted consumer ephemera in order to “Future proof” their home and increase it’s “market value”.

      No one is asking; “How come my energy is so effing expensive in the first place?”, “Why can’t I have district heating?”, “Why does every single home need its own (soon to become obsolete) power generating station?”, “Who is actually benefitting from all this?”

  3. Wul says:

    If we can’t choose our own government, we should become ungovernable.

  4. Wul says:

    Bit of a change (above) from what Sir Keir was offering us all in 2019 (why did “the offer” suddenly get so shit?):

    *Increasing the health budget by 4.3% and introducing a National Care Service
    *Holding a second referendum on Brexit and giving EU nationals right to remain
    *Raising the minimum wage significantly and stopping state pension age rises
    *Bringing forward Net Zero target to 2030s as part of a Green New Deal
    *Nationalising key industries
    *Abolish Private Schools’ charitable status
    *Free bus travel for under 25’s
    *Build 100,000 council homes/year
    *Allow EU nationals to remain

  5. Ann Morgan says:

    Aye -to all of the insight above Mike but also .. I have been searching for a response to Sharon Graham’s ( Gen Sec of Unite the Union) atrocious commentary -reduced to the slogan ‘ No Ban without a Plan’ -demanding continuation and expansion of the extraction of the black stuff ( she expects into mid century) , jobs at any costs for oil industry workers ( snap on her comments on jobs in the ‘ defence’ industry -her words , mine’s are ‘ arms trade ‘ -Israel and other despotic regime customers) I am a member of Unite and the dilemma is to stay or go -previous attempts at discussion on Trident/Dreadnought met with the jobs nonsense… yes nonsense… the STUC produced a well researched report on the number of good jobs which could be created … the money wasted on the non deterrent the nuclear fleet is ( some 206 billion to replace). Climate Jobs journal produced by CACCTUG ( trade unions) was actually proscribed by the Labour Party regime! My Dad and I were active with SCRAM -bring it back but at the same time bring back the type of trade unionists who cared about people on the other side of the world ( Nae Pasaran-Rolls Royce) and have a read at Tim Jones -engineer-from CAAT on how to repurpose the engineering skills for energy that doesn’t cost the earth ( 2016-on line). And proper democratic public ownership of everything!

  6. david kelly says:

    Essential to note that without new nuclear power plants, we cannot sustain our stock of atomic bombs.

    All ‘hydrogen’ bombs require tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, to function. It only has a half life of 12 years. You can’t store it. The Canadian source of all the tritium we use will shortly cease. The “tritium barrier breeder” technology is as yet undeveloped. It will need to be incorporated in a new range of nuclear power plants before their design is finalised. The contract to develop this technology is signed.

    Forget the “base load” bullshit. The cost of batteries is falling as last as renewable power sources. This is all about bombs.

  7. norm says:

    “ failed to make landmark inroads into emissions in areas it could radically act on such as transport and urban planning”

    On the above point, while correct the reason is that Scotland doesn’t directly control the budget that could make the radical impact needed.

    To coin a phrase, all roads lead to Westminster.

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