We can stop new nuclear – if we want to!

Thoughts on the anti nuclear power movement in Britain

By Andreas Speck

With the re-re-reconsultation on nuclear power, ending in January 2011, and the application for preliminary works for Hinkley Point C, which has been put in recently, the anti nuclear power movement enters into a critical phase. With this text, I'm trying to put together some of my thoughts on the movement, where it is at and what I think might be useful and necessary to do.

While I am a member of Kick Nuclear, the London group of the Stop Nuclear Power Network, this text only reflects my personal thoughts, and not the ideas of Kick Nuclear, nor of the Stop Nuclear Power Network.

The situation regarding new nuclear

There has been a lot of activity in the last few years to push through new nuclear in Britain. We had a first consultation on nuclear power in 2006 (the 2006 Energy Review), which was successfully challenged by Greenpeace UK in the courts. This led to a new consultation on nuclear as part of the package of consultations for the different National Policy Statements on energy, which are now being re-consulted upon, because the present government fears that the former government did not do a good job, and that without a new consultation – in fact a re-re-reconsultation – they might be open to a new legal challenge, putting the government's plans for new nuclear at risk.

The previous government already changed the planning act, to take away the authority over planning applications for nuclear power stations and other major infrastructure projects from the local authorities, and to centralise the planning process in a new 'Infrastructure Planning Commission' (IPC) – although the present government wants to abolish this Commission again, but this does not mean it will give power back to the local authorities. It is more likely that it will be centralised with some minister or Ministry.

Besides the consultation on the set of National Policy Statements, other things are going on to move new nuclear forward:

  • a so-called 'generic design assessment' of potential new reactor designs, presently Westinghouse's AP1000 and Areva's EPR. While there are – even according to the authorities – still serious problems to overcome, it is highly likely that the two reactor designs will be approved in summer 2011. This is crucial for EDF at Hinkley Point C, as EDF plans to build two EPR reactors there, and needs their design to be approved on time.
  • The government also plans to set a fixed price for nuclear waste, which will amount to a hidden subsidy, given that at present nobody knows how and where the waste will finally be stored for tens of thousands of years, and what it will cost.
  • As this is not sufficient, as several financial institutions such as Citibank and KPMG showed in reports, other 'market mechanisms' are being investigated, such as a fixed carbon prize (much higher than at present, but problematic because the carbon trading scheme is European, and not British), or other mechanisms such as 'premium tariffs'. While these strictly speaking would not be government subsidies, they would mean that consumers have to pay the extra price of investing in new nuclear – wether they want it or not.

All these are meant to remove the last obstacles for new nuclear in Britain.

On the other side, EDF especially has been pushing hard for new nuclear, and is the company most advanced in its preparations. It has now submitted the application for preliminary works for Hinkley Point C to the local Council, and is expected to submit an application to the Infrastructure Planning Commission soon.
EDF also held several “suppliers' days”, to get UK industry interested in bidding for contracts for the construction of new nuclear power plants. It already contracted architect firm YRM and engineering and project management company Amec for its new power plants at Sizewell and Hinkley Point. And at the end of August 2010 the preliminary works for Hinkley Point C were put out for tender for the third time.

This clearly shows that EDF wants to begin with the construction at Hinkley Point as soon as possible.

The existing anti-nuclear power movement – an overview

The anti-nuclear power movement of 2010 lacks visibility, but it exists. We have a range of groups:

  • the more or less professional NGOs, which are especially Greenpeace UK (not to be confused with London Greenpeace), and Friends of the Earth. Both groups have a long history of opposition to nuclear power, but at present do not have visible grassroots based campaigns on nuclear power. However, Greenpeace was important in overturning the first consultation on nuclear power through a legal challenge, and the fact that we now have a re-re-reconsultion is certainly thanks to the government's fear of a new legal challenge – this time, they want to get it watertight.
  • The old local groups at existing nuclear sites: Shut Down Sizewell, Stop Hinkley, CORE, etc. These groups too have a long history, and mostly a good knowledge of the local planning system. Even if they don't get majority support locally, they are a recognised opposition to nuclear power, with a detailed knowledge of 'their' existing local power station.
  • New groups and individuals, which are networking via the Stop Nuclear Power Network, founded in November 2009. These groups are especially interested in taking nonviolent direct action against nuclear new build in Britain. The campaign Boycott EDF, launched in November 2010, is one campaign coming out of this spectrum. Groups from the network also did sporadically blockade nuclear power stations – i.e. Sizewell in February and Hinkley Point in October 2010. However, these blockades were small in size, with between 7-15 people, even though they were quite effective in terms of blockading.

This is obviously an idealised systematisation of the groups, and there is some overlap between them. It is clear that both, the professional national NGOs and the existing local site groups, provide a lot of the background information and research which is crucial also for the new groups of the Stop Nuclear Power Network.

How change happens

Before I continue to look at the anti nuclear power movement, I want to explore some social movement theory, to look at how we as a social movement might be able to achieve change. I think an understanding of how social movements can achieve change is crucial if we want to strategise to successfully stop nuclear new build in Britain. To me, the issue is too important to just do actions that 'feel good', but are not based on a strategic understanding how we might be able to stop new nuclear.

I'm basing this excursion into movement theory mostly on Bill Moyer's Movement Action Plan, because it is a tool targeted at activists, and not at academia.

Gene Sharp, one of the great strategic thinkers of nonviolence, explains that the roots of power reach below the structure of the state into society itself. Power is not intrinsic to political elites; the power of elites is based on external sources. These powers include authority (the acceptance by people of the elite's right to command), human resources (the elite's supporters, with their knowledge and skills), intangible factors (such as psychological considerations and ideological conditioning), material resources, and the type and extent of sanctions at the elite's disposal. These sources of power, in turn, depend on the obedience and cooperation of the people. The relationship between command and obedience is an interactive one, and the elite control can be exercised only with the active or passive compliance of subject peoples. Obedience therefore becomes a prerequisite of power, but at the same time there is at least in principle the possibility to withdraw consent.

Nonviolent action constitutes a refusal by subjects to obey. Without the active consent or the passive compliance of the subjects, the rulers have little power and a weak basis to rule. The first step therefore is, according to Sharp, to actively withdraw consent. In a next step there needs to be preparedness to act collectively. “The power of the ruler will collapse if consent is withdrawn in an active way. The 'active' here is vital. The ruler will not be threatened by grumbling, alienation or critical analyses alone.” In a third step a strategy is needed to organise resistance – and this is where the Movement Action Plan can play an important role.

According to Bill Moyer, “the central issue of social movements, therefore, is the struggle between the movement and the powerholders to win the hearts (sympathies), minds (public opinion), and active support of the great majority of the populace, which ultimately holds the power to either preserve the status quo or create change”.

It is also important to keep in mind that the real issue is “social justice” versus “vested interests”. The movement works for social justice and those in power represent vested interests. I think this is pretty obvious to us working against nuclear power – we know who is interested in and benefits from nuclear power – but this is also something which we need to highlight and make visible to the public.

The Movement Action Plan is a model that describes the progress of a social movement in eight stages, each of which is defined by certain characteristics, and certain objectives the movement should achieve to create a crisis that might lead to the next stage. The following summary of the eight stages is adapted from an article in Peace News I co-authored in 1998:

A movement begins without knowing it. In Stage I, business as usual, the main aim of movement groups is to get people thinking, to show that there is a problem.

The next step is to show the failure of established channels (Stage II). Using hearings, legal processes, participation in administrative proceedings, and so on, the movement has to prove that these institutions won't act for the people to solve the problem – that people will have to act themselves.

This leads to ripening conditions (Stage III) for the development of a social movement. People start to listen and form new groups, small civil disobedience actions start to dramatise the problem. The powerholders get a bit irritated, but mainly go on as usual.

If the movement does its homework well (organising new groups, networking and coalition-building) it can take off (Stage IV) after a trigger event. This might be organised by the movement – the occupation of the construction site at Wyhl, Germany, in 1974 triggered the German anti-nuclear movement – or something done by the powerholders. The trigger event leads to massive demonstrations, large campaigns of civil disobedience and extensive media coverage. Although the movement has won a lot of public sympathy the powerholders usually won't give up at this stage.

This often leads to a perception of failure (Stage V) by many activists. This is enhanced by decreasing participation in movement events and negative media coverage.

But at the same time the movement is winning over the majority (Stage VI). Until now, the movement has focused on protest; now it is important to offer solutions. Nearly three quarters of society agree that there is a need for change. It is now important to win the struggle over the kind of change to be made.
The powerholders will try to cheat the movement, increase repression, play tricks. The movement must aim to stop the tricks and promote an alternative solution.

Actual success (Stage VII) is a long process and often difficult to recognise. The movement's task is not just to get its demands met, but to achieve a paradigm shift, a new way of thinking.

After the movement wins – either by confrontational struggle or a long-term weakening of the powerholders – the movement needs to get its success implemented. Consolidation of success and moving over to other struggles (Stage VIII) is now the movement's task.

The anti nuclear power movement and the Movement Action Plan: where are we at?

Looking at the present anti nuclear power movement using the framework of the Movement Action Plan can give us some important insights.

I think it is important to acknowledge that even though it was possible to once stop the constructions of Hinkley Point C when it was planned (Thatcher's push for nuclear 'only' left us with Sizewell B), we have lost ground since, and today there is not a majority opposed to nuclear power. The nuclear industry has managed to use the climate argument to undermine the opposition to nuclear power, and there hasn't been much public debate for almost a generation, which also means many of today's environmental activists have grown up and have been politically socialised without exposure to the debate on nuclear power. Whatever has been achieved in the past – and although it is still important to be aware of this historty – we today have to start afresh if we want to stop new nuclear. However, we have the benefit of a lot of experience of past struggles, and also we know the arguments. This means although we have to start afresh, we don't start from scratch. It is important to have this in mind when we look at our movement.

If we – for example – take a closer look at stage II of the Movement Action Plan, proving the failure of institutions, then the main objectives of the movement would be:

  • Prove and document the failure of official institutions and powerholders to uphold the public trust.
  • Begin legal cases to establish legal and moral basis for opposition (might win some of these cases later).
  • Build opposition organisations, leadership, expertise.

If we look at who is doing what today, then we can see that groups such as the existing site groups and Greenpeace UK or Friends of the Earth are doing a good job in proving and documenting the failure of the institutions, and are well prepared to begin legal cases (that's why we have the re-re-reconsultion).

It is also a characteristic of this phase that new groups emerge, independent of the established anti-nuclear organisations. That could be us, the Stop Nuclear Power Network, but there is also Ron Bailey's No Need for Nuclear, which is another new organisation. But are we doing a good job in building our organisation/network?

Important pitfalls, which would stop the movement from progressing, are mainly believing that the institutions actually work, and hopelesness or feeling powerless. To move on, it is crucial that grassroots activists realise that the powerholders and normal public institutions violate the public trust; and that extra-parliamentary political action is needed to create change.

As Bill Moyer writes: “This stage can be particularly disheartening. The problem and the policies of powerholders continue unabated, there is little dissent or publicity, and the situation seems like it might continue indefinitely—as indeed it might.”

Stage III – the ripening conditions – is characterised by rising grassroots discontent with the conditions and the official institutions, but also with the old, existing professional NGOs, who are perceived as not doing enough for change. The movement's own environment in this stage can be described as follows:

  • Grassroots opposition groups grow in number and size.
  • Travelling organises inspire opposition.
  • Begin small nonviolent actions.
  • Some of the progressive community is won over.
  • Pre-existing mass-based networks and groups available to join the new cause.

Where are we with that? Yes, we are doing small nonviolent actions – such as the blockades of Sizewell in February 2010 and of Hinkley Point in October 2010 – but otherwise? In fact, I don't think we are doing to badly. We, as a network, but also the other existing groups, are working on regaining the ground lost in recent years, to regain the support for anti-nuclear activities within the progressive community. And also within the more radical activist community – such as Earth First! and Climate Camp – we are regaining ground.

The biggest danger in this stage is a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness, and a lack of strategic vision.

The crisis point is reached when the grassroots is growing upset and frustrated with the problem and the normal system. Their upset grows to bursting point, waiting for an event – the trigger event – to burst the bubble and to enter into stage IV? the take off as a movement.

I don't want to go into more details of the Movement Action Plan here, but I think we can say that we are presently somewhere between stages II and III, with us as Stop Nuclear Power Network pushing hard for stage III.

The role of NVDA

As Stop Nuclear Power Network we have a strong focus on nonviolent direct action. While I strongly believe this is right, I sometimes feel there is still a lack of focus, and of understanding how nonviolent direct action contributes to change.
In the past year, the type of nonviolent direct action taken by us – most of the NVDA of the anti nuclear power movement was by 'us', the groups and people belonging to the Stop Nuclear Power Network – were small, unannounced blockades, such as the one of the Sizewell Blockaders in 2008, and the two blockades I myself was involved in in 2010, or the disruption of the Select Committee on Climate Change hearing in January 2010. These actions were important, and to some degree effective, beyond the mere disruption of the normal running of the respective power station on the day, or the hearing.

The two blockade actions of 2010 were both well timed: the blockade of Sizewell on 22 February marked the end of the government's consultation on the National Policy Statements on energy, including the one on nuclear power. The blockade of Hinkley Point in October marked the end of EDF's consultation for their application for the construction of Hinkley Point C. Both actions got some local/regiona? media coverage, and served to highlight the fact that the respective consultations were a scam. However, while this is useful, the actions did not serve much in terms of building a movement.

Even though nonviolent direct action aims to have a direct impact on what it is opposed to – such as disrupting the normal running of a nuclear power station, or construction works – we should not forget that the main impact such an action has is still symbolic, and political. While blockades and disruptions do cost the powerholders or the companies such as EDF money, this is not the price that really will in the end lead to them abondoning new nuclear in Britain. For this, we need to look at the political price that has to be paid – which can be expressed in 'mass-withdrawal of consent', which includes the threat that it will go beyond the mere issue of nuclear power. This turn nonviolent direct action from a policing problem into a political problem.

From my perspective, this means that for the future we need to get beyond small, internally organised NVDA to publicly organised and promoted mass NVDA, which is part of a campaign, but in turn can also be used to build a campaign. Within this, small actions such as the ones we did in the past still will have a role to play – but they should not be our only focus.

A proposal for action

Bill Moyer writes as part of his description of stage III: “Small local prototype demonstrations and nonviolent action campaigns begin to dramatize the problem, put a dim public spotlight on it, and set a precedent for future actions.” So what kind of nonviolent direct action campaign could do this?
I do not think to multiply the kind of NVDA we did so far can serve this purpose. The number of people – and even more so groups – capable of doing small-scale, autonomously organised NVDA is very limited, even if we could convince all those groups involved in NVDA against nuclear weapons or againt climate chaos to now focus on nuclear power – something I doubt is possible, and would also not make sense. We need to build our own movement, and need to get new people involved in the movement, and in NVDA.

Looking at some of the lessons learned from mass-NVDA in Germany, around Castor nuclear waste transports, but also from the peace movement of the 1980s, suggest that mass NVDA requires several pre-conditions, some of which are political, and some of which need to be addressed by the form of action and by the campaign itself.

Jochen Stay mentions the following aspects:

  • The movement has been able to escalate the conflict at one concrete place, so that the place itself gets a large symbolic meaning and even becomes part of the identity of the movement.
  • The campaign gains energy from a social vision which goes far beyond the political aim, and which is reflected within the campaign, in the way people relate to each other. I only want to mention grassroots democracy, consensus decision making, affinity groups and spokescouncil.
  • The campaign for civil disobedience is carried by a circle of activists, who for years put all their energy and time (almost full-time) into the campaign and the fulfillment of their vision.
  • A form of civil disobedience is devised whose consequences are neither too heavy nor too light. This means through limited violation of the law and through the preparedness to confront the consequences public awareness is created, but also that many people are prepared to wage civil disobedience, because the legal and physical consequences are limited and costs can be calculated.
  • The actions develop into a good mixture of effective disruption of the machinery and ritual. For me, rituals are not negative, as long as they are filled with life.
  • The mobilisation for the actions asks for a personal commitment from participants, for instance via pledges.
  • Participants have the opportunity to prepare themselves well. A lot of effort is put into creating of an organisational framework that allows the individual activist to focus on the act of blockading itself.

Important aspects are: making it simple for people to take part in NVDA, with low-risk calculated legal consequences. This requires preparation and organisation – and possibly the 'travelling organisers', mentioned by Bill Moyer as one characteristic of stage III, to inspire local activism and groups, which could organise and mobilise for mass-NVDA locally.

I think given the present political situation around nuclear power, a campaign of nonviolent direct action should focus on Hinkley Point C, for several reasons:

  • the application for preliminary works for Hinkley Point C has been submitted, and once it is approved, works to clear the land and prepare the site for two new reactors will begin. This can be as early as spring 2011.
  • Hinkley Point C will clearly be the first new nuclear power station which is to be built, and preparations are at least 1-2 years ahead of Sizewell, with other power stations even more behind.
  • Local ground is being prepared, in Bridgewater (close to Hinkley), but also in Bristol.
  • And last but not least: Hinkley C was not built when they first wanted to do so. This can be used to mobilise, even though we have to be aware that times have changed.

While this still might not be enough to sustain a campaign, it is something to build on.

My concrete proposal there is to launch a campaign for an announced blockade of Hinkley Point C for the Monday after planning permission for preliminary works is being granted by the Council, and to combine this with public pledges to participate in the blockade, but also public declarations of solidarity.

An alternative could be a blockade on a symbolic day, such as 26 April 2011, the 25th anniversary of the catastrophy of Chernobyl.
However, I do think that a campaign linked to the planning permission is better suited to create some momentum than a blockade on a fixed day, although it poses organisational challenges. It is more clearly linked to what is happening at Hinkley in relation to nuclear new build, and the campaign can be used to not only mobilise for the blockade, but to also inform about new nuclear, and put pressure on the planning process and the local Council (especially knowing that there is a lot of local discontent with the specifics of EDF's application). Because of this, I think it can be more inspiring for people to join in, than a blockade on a symbolic day.

It is clear that an announced blockade poses more challenges in terms of blockading, especially if we also want to blockade with hundreds of people, and not the more or less same 10-20 people as usual. The first problem are the logistics: we will need a camp, or some other form of common place/accommodation for the weekend before the blockade, to do training, form affinity groups, organise a functioning spokes council, and finalise the scenario/tactics for the blockade.

The second problem will be getting to the blockading point. This not only will require sufficient transport (depending on where the camp/accommodation will be), but also a good tactic to avoid being stopped by police, and being prevented from blockading.
However, more important than the practical impact the blockade might have on Hinkley Point on the day is the political impact. If we are able to mobilise a hundred people or even more for a blockade, then we reach a new quality of resistance to nuclear power in Britain. If the police has to arrest all of us to prevent a blockade – then so be it. It will still show that a hundred people are prepared to be arrested, that a hundred people are 'withdrawing their consent'. That will not be enough in the long term, but would be a qualitative difference to where we are now.

In any case – no matter if we want to blockade on 26 April 2011, or on an unspecified day in spring 2011 – the campaign needs to be launched very soon, if it is to have a chance to be successful. It needs to create a sense of urgency for people to be willing to put their bodies on the line, but it also needs to show that it can have an impact, and can help to create a stronger movement against nuclear power in Britain.
I strongly believe that the struggle against new nuclear in Britain can be successful. We can do it if we want to – but we need to act strategically.

Andreas Speck
is a member of Kick Nuclear, the London group of the Stop Nuclear Power Network, and works for War Resisters' International, where he works on conscientious objection to military service, but has also been involved in organising international nonviolent direct action against NATO (Strasbourg 2009, Lisbon 2010) or at Aldermaston. He has been an anti nuclear power activists since the 1980s, first in Germany, and now in Britain.


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