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Jeremy Corbyn was once a high-profile opponent of nuclear power – what happened?

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Written by: Bridget Woodman, Course Director, MSc Energy Policy, University of Exeter

The announcement by the shadow business and energy secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, that Labour will target “net zero” emissions by 2050 is of course welcome for anyone interested in achieving a low-carbon economy. But the party is plugging in to an existing and growing movement, rather than leading the way.

Indeed, several governments, including those of of New Zealand and Sweden have already endorsed zero emissions, along with companies such as Unilever and Tesco, as well as a cross-party group of British MPs. Even the prime minister, Theresa May, recently announced that the UK will join the Carbon Neutral Coalition, hopefully signalling a step towards a net zero target.

So, the pledge itself might not be radical, but it will still be difficult for the UK to achieve. Transforming energy systems is technically, socially, economically and politically complex and Labour’s announcement was backed up a briefing on aspects of how it might be achieved. It foresees rapid growth of both offshore and onshore wind, as well as solar power. It will also require a much-needed concerted effort to improve domestic energy efficiency, particularly in the use of heat in our homes.

But the briefing only gives a partial picture and the scope and feasibility of the plan is yet to be established, as full details will only be revealed later in the year.

Labour is split over nuclear power

The lack of detail raises lots of questions, but one of the most politically interesting is what role new nuclear energy might play in Labour’s vision of a net zero future. Long-Bailey’s speech did not mention it. The background briefing does, but only in passing. And the final, complete report is not yet out. So how much of Labour’s renewables pledge and net zero target depends on new nuclear stations being built?

At the heart of this lack of clarity is the split in the Labour Party about nuclear power – and at the heart of that is Jeremy Corbyn. Back in the day – pre-leadership – Corbyn was a high-profile opponent of the nuclear issue on both environmental and proliferation grounds. None of the problems with nuclear waste and plutonium which so concerned him then have been solved, but his approach has shifted, leading to some awkward exchanges as people seek to understand what his views are now.

Most notable among these was the painful Copeland by-election in 2017. Copeland is home to Sellafield, the heart of the UK’s nuclear waste industry, and the seat was solidly Labour for decades.

Sellafield, Cumbria.
Ashley Coates, CC BY-SA

Corbyn’s nuclear position was a key focus of by-election campaigning, with the Conservatives highlighting his statements opposing the nuclear industry generally and new nuclear power in particular. Despite a last-minute endorsement from Corbyn for a new nuclear station at Moorside near Sellafield, Labour lost the seat, with a lack of belief from voters on this new nuclear stance widely identified as a reason.

Elsewhere in the party, though, nuclear power is seen as an intrinsic part of the UK’s energy future. Long-Bailey is very keen on it, for instance. This side of the debate reflects the accepted political paradigm that achieving climate targets won’t be possible without nuclear power.

This view, though, is a paradigm – a recognised and unquestioned way of thinking about what is “acceptable”. It hasn’t really been challenged since new nuclear power was endorsed in the 2008 Nuclear White Paper. Since then the energy world has changed. The cost of renewables has plummeted, storage has emerged as an increasingly viable option for managing the fluctuations in solar and wind power, and increased interconnection between the electricity systems in the UK and Europe are providing new opportunities for balancing power.

Coupled with this, the UK’s nuclear plans are floundering because of the high costs associated with new stations. Hinkley Point C requires much higher subsidies than was envisaged in 2008 – and financing of other new projects such as Wylfa and Moorside have led the government to think about measures such as partial nationalisation as a way of managing the construction and financial risks. This isn’t what the White Paper promised.

So, when Labour’s energy plan is finally published, the issue will be one of the most fascinating. Will the party endorse new nuclear plants, despite their ever present financial problems? It seems likely that it will, because there has been no detailed examination of the case for new nuclear power for ten years – instead, both the Conservative and Labour have generally accepted that nuclear is necessary in a world of climate change.

This is a real shame. One of the opportunities that putting forward a new vision of the UK’s energy systems offered was a new way of thinking about things. From this perspective, just accepting that nuclear power is an inevitable part of the energy future is lazy thinking which fails to recognise the changing energy world. If Labour really want a new, radical energy plan, it needs to reassess the nuclear paradigm.

The Conversation

Bridget Woodman does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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