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Greenwash won't wash

Politicians, local government and business leaders, gathered in London yesterday at a giant greenwash conference sponsored by The Guardian newspaper and (you couldn’t make it up) by energy giant E-On. Yes that’s E-On, the company planning to build vast new polluting coal-fired power stations across the country with the government’s enthusiastic support.

Delegates were discussing how to re-engage the public in the debate and overcome “climate change fatigue” and scepticism. They were treated to a video contribution from prime minister Brown. What did he say? We don’t know – it was either so top secret or so dull that it hasn’t even made The Guardian’s own pages.

But he did make a speech on Monday about the transition to a post-oil economy, where he insisted that Britain must build more nuclear power stations. Brown called for "a renaissance of nuclear power", adding: "Britain is moving quickly to replace its ageing fleet of nuclear power stations. All around the world I see renewed interest in this technology, as countries contemplate the alternative - continued oil dependence and unchecked climate change."

His officials claim that Brown believes the new reactors could be working by 2017 (although 2030 is more realistic), and that this will be made easier by new planning laws which will cut out public opposition. These new laws are heading for the statute book after all but a few Labour MPs dropped their opposition to the fast-trick procedures at the last minute.

Brown wants to replace the nine existing power stations, which are rapidly becoming obsolete, on the same sites, but possibly building more than one in each location. They will be of the European Pressurised Reactor model, currently under construction in France and Finland. Or rather not under construction in France. In fact, since Brown made his speech at President Nicolas Sarkozy's "Club Med" conference of EU and Mediterranean states in Paris, one can imagine Sarkozy whispering to him behind his hand: “Gordon, Gordon, we ‘ave ‘ad to stop work on our new reactor – eet eez a deesasterr.”

The French nuclear safety agency stopped work on the new EPR reactor in Flamanville in May this year, only six months after it began, when it found serious problems with quality of construction work. Greenpeace reports: “Cracks have already been observed at part of the base slab beneath the reactor building. The supplier of the steel containment liner reportedly lacks the necessary qualifications. Fabrication of the liner was continuing despite quality failures demonstrating the lack of competence of the supplier. As a result, one-quarter of the welds of the steel liner of the reactor containment building were deficient.” And the other EPR, in Finland, has been under construction for more than two years and costs have doubled.

It is entirely likely that Brown’s nuclear fantasy will never come to fruition – it does have something of a megalomaniac fantasy about it. But that is not the point. As Greenpeace says: “We only have a limited time and budget to stave off the most catastrophic effects of climate change and we must stop pouring money down the nuclear black hole.”

Involving the public in debate and overcoming scepticism won’t be achieved by more sponsored greenwash, but by a clear expression of the causes and future impacts of climate change alongside a programme to tackle it. Most people believe that climate change becomes just another excuse for the government to levy more taxes and for the energy companies to make more profits – and so far they are spot on! It is time to democratise ownership and control of energy production, putting people before profit, and establishing a massive programme of publicly-funded energy efficiency, public transport and alternative energy projects. Now that would get public support.

Penny Cole
Environment editor
17 July 2008

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