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Lib Dems' green boast under threat as party votes for nuclear
Rowena Mason for The Guardian
16th September 2013
Members accepted that there is a limited role for atomic power at their Glasgow conference yesterday......
The Liberal Democrats have embraced nuclear power for the first time in their 25-year history on the grounds that it will help Britain tackle climate change.
In a historic reversal of policy, hundreds of members on Sunday 15th voted in favour of accepting a "limited" role for atomic power plants in a safe and affordable way.
Grassroots Liberal Democrats appeared to be in a pragmatic mood as they also backed the leadership over the controversial issues of tuition fees and fracking on the second day of the party's Glasgow conference.
In a boost for Nick Clegg, they accepted the current system of university funding as "the best deal for students and taxpayers", although an amendment was passed agreeing to adapt it if necessary at a later date.
On shale gas, the party agreed to accept fracking in "controlled" circumstances, with an amendment that would ensure it takes place under stricter regulation.
The acceptance of nuclear power, however, was the most significant U-turn. The party backed atomic plants following an impassioned speech by Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat energy secretary, and several hours of tense debate about the role of nuclear power in green politics.
Davey argued it would be reckless to reject such a large low-carbon source of energy, which would help wean Britain off fossil fuels. Green groups reacted with fury to the change, arguing the party had moved further towards Tory positions.
Davey admitted making the case against nuclear power from the same platform in 2006 but said he had listened to arguments about its benefits since then. "I've changed my mind because of climate change," he said. It would be unimaginably hard to create a zero-carbon Britain without getting electricity from nuclear, he said.
He also raised the prospect that nuclear energy will be near-essential if scientists fail in their efforts to cut carbon emissions from fossil fuels with new "capture and storage" technology. "When I have listened to pro-nuclear Liberal Democrats over the years, there is one argument I have found increasingly difficult to answer and that is the climate change argument," he told members.
"Climate change poses a real and massive danger to our planet. Not keeping a genuinely low-carbon source of electricity as an option is reckless when we don't know the future. "We are going to need vast amounts of low-carbon electricity to tackle climate change. Why? Because if our carbon capture and storage plans don't work, we may have to replace all fossil fuels for electricity generation. That is about 60% of all generation. If we do that without nuclear, you will need to replace about 85% of electricity generation. That's huge."
Liberal Democrats have been against nuclear power since the party was formed in the late 1980s. Back then, under the leadership of Lord Ashdown, the party said nuclear power was incompatible with green politics, arguing there was no safe method of disposing of nuclear waste.
An anti-nuclear stance has helped the Liberal Democrats develop an image as the most environmentally aware of the main parties, with the 2010 manifesto rejecting a new generation of plants, mostly because of the cost.
However, Chris Huhne, the first Lib Dem energy secretary, began the process of accepting nuclear by saying the party could accept it as long as there would be no taxpayer subsidy. Since Davey took over the reins, he has been negotiating with EDF, the French nuclear giant, over the extra amount it can charge people for electricity to cover the cost of building the first plants.
Despite the fact nuclear power has been tacitly accepted by the leadership, senior Liberal Democrat sources feared they would lose the vote. In the end, 230 people were in favour of allowing more nuclear power, compared with 183 against the idea of any new generation of plants.
It raises the prospect that tentative support for nuclear power may be contained in the 2015 manifesto. The motion said it would "accept in future nuclear power stations could play a limited role in electricity supply, provided concerns about safety, disposal of radioactive waste and cost are adequately addressed".
There were strong feelings on both sides which split former political allies. Joel Kenrick, an adviser to Huhne when he was energy secretary, argued in favour of allowing nuclear power to tackle climate change.
But Huhne's other former adviser, Duncan Brack, said that the party's idea of allowing limited nuclear power without subsidy was a chimera and a fantasy.
Fiona Hall, a Liberal Democrat MEP, also argued the motion is based on a false premise because the coalition's plans to make voters pay for nuclear power through their energy bills is tantamount to a subsidy.
"If it looks like a subsidy and smells like a subsidy, it is a subsidy," she said.
Others argued that abandoning the party's long-held opposition to nuclear power would risk alienating core voters, who were first attracted to the party because of that environmental issue.
However, several prominent MPs stood up to back the leadership, including Julian Huppert, a scientist, who said nuclear "is not perfect, but nothing is".
Craig Bennett, policy director at Friends of the Earth, said: "The change punches a huge hole in the Liberal Democrats' fast-sinking green credibility."
"Nuclear power comes with massive costs attached," he said. "Ed Davey is deluded if he thinks new reactors can go ahead without public subsidy - building them will result in the Liberal Democrats, yet again, breaking their promises."
Dr Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace, added: "The vote shows how far the Liberal Democrats have slid from their previously principled position on energy and climate." He added: "The party now seems prepared to thrust the issues of nuclear waste and funding on to future generations, rather than take on vested interests and put us on the road to dealing with the climate crisis in a clean, safe way."
Despite accepting the party's stance on nuclear, gas and tuition fees, Liberal Democrat members unexpectedly revolted over the issue of blocking online pornography. They rejected a motion, proposed by Baroness Floella Benjamin, the former children's television presenter, suggesting all computers should filter out pornography unless a user specifically opts to receive it.
This article was first published by The Guardian. The Ecologist is a member of the Guardian's Environment Network article swap.
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