Friends of the Earth is seriously considering abandoning its decades-long opposition to nuclear power, the organisation’s head of policy, science and research Mike Childs has revealed to me in an extensive and very frank interview. To me this very much confirms Friends of the Earth’s position on the pragmatic end of the environmentalist spectrum, and is a welcome reflection of the fact that there are many in the green movement – even in well-established NGOs with long-held positions – who do not hold ‘religious’ positions even on exceptionally divisive and emotive issues such as nuclear.
(The entire interview is transcribed in full underneath these introductory comments, as I’m sure many might worry that I am misinterpreting Mike’s comments or taking them out of context given the controversy they could potentially generate.)
Friends of the Earth has already quietly moved away from calling for an immediate shutdown of the UK’s nuclear power stations, and now supports the continued operation of nuclear plants until the end of their prescribed lifetimes. It has also stated its support for research on thorium-fuelled nuclear plants, and is examining the arguments around GE-Hitachi’s proposed PRISM reactor which could generate carbon-free power by consuming nuclear waste and plutonium. However, Mike Childs’ comments are an indication that Friends of the Earth is perhaps moving faster and more ambitiously on this issue than many observers will have realised – and I think this potential shift could hold great significance for the environmental movement as a whole.
With regard to Germany’s phase-out of nuclear post-Fukushima, Childs acknowledged openly that Friends of the Earth UK already takes a very different view from its sister organisation in Germany. “In the UK we don’t think it’s a good idea because if you close it [nuclear] down it will lead to increased emissions, and that is what we are most concerned about,” he told me. Moreover, “our ability to rapidly increase renewables and energy efficiency to negate that increase in emissions from closing nuclear power just isn’t there” in the UK. With regard to Japan, Childs also did not explicitly support the de-facto nuclear switch-off – though “you can understand why they reached the decisions they reached” given the “psychological impact” of the accident. Instead, he said that it was not for Friends of the Earth in the UK to comment on the situation in Japan because of the organisation’s devolved structure as an international federation.
Instead of taking an explicit anti-nuclear position, Childs admitted that “there are absolutely good arguments on both sides”. This is not the sort of thing I would have expected to hear from a spokesperson on behalf of one of the best-known green groups a few years ago. He continued: “And that’s one of the frustrating things I find about the nuclear debate – sometimes those who are anti-nuclear just dismiss all the arguments of those who are pro-nuclear out of hand, seeing them as illogical and wrong, and likewise the other way round.” Most importantly, Childs concluded that a sensible position on nuclear should instead be about “balancing risk, balancing the risks of nuclear proliferation and nuclear waste against the risks of more carbon emissions”. I and many others in the climate-change pro-nuclear camp would agree with that statement entirely.
Friends of the Earth could abandon its anti-nuclear position completely if its board agrees do to so following an academic review which is soon to be carried out by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Manchester, Childs said. The review will include a “look at the quality of the arguments on both sides” together with a peer-review process and internal discussion within local groups and the wider supporter base, and its documentation will be put in the public domain. In the meantime Friends of the Earth continues to oppose nuclear new-build in the UK, because to suspend this campaign would prejudice the outcome of the review by already being “a change in policy”. If anyone is sceptical, Childs insists that the academic review is absolutely not “a tick-box exercise, it is a genuine review, genuinely looking at our position, and if the evidence suggests we need to change, then absolutely we should change them [our policies]”.
I do not want to suggest that a reversal of the anti-nuclear policy is more likely as an outcome of the policy review than a restatement of the existing policy – I have no insider information here, and Childs was at pains not to speculate. But the mere fact that such an open-minded exercise is being carried out at all is surely a great credit to Friends of the Earth’s current leadership given the dangers involved in any possible challenge to green orthodoxy on the nuclear issue. However, as Childs concluded, policies should always be re-examined, “because the world is changing and evidence is changing” – and Friends of the Earth is an “evidence-based organisation”.
Watch this space.
[The interview below is transcribed from a phone conversation as recorded. I have the original audio file and will try to find a way of uploading it. I have in the meantime transcribed it verbatim, except for removing ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and suchlike, and putting in sentence punctuation.]
Friends of the Earth interview – Mike Childs with Mark Lynas, 13 June 2012
Having read the existing FoE policy, I see it is currently not to ask for a premature closure of UK nuclear plants – which I have to say I didn’t know – so can you tell me how much that’s an evolution from Friends of the Earth’s former policy?
I think to be honest I don’t think we’ve ever really called for the premature closure of nuclear power plants when they’ve been up and running. Obviously it came onto the agenda post-Fukushima when there were premature shutdowns in Germany particularly. So the reason I don’t think it is a massive change, although stating it clearly is a change of some degree, is that – we’ve been working on climate change for 20 years, so we’ve been aware of the need to reduce carbon emissions for that long and more really. So, it may be an evolution in terms of saying it, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a dramatic change in many of our longer-standing positions.
Sure, but given that the premature closure of nuclear plants is what environmentalists – or Greens, rather, not all environmentalists – are celebrating in Germany, and lately in Japan, this is actually quite different from what you’re calling for in the UK, isn’t it?
So, yes, there are different positions between different Friends of the Earth groups in different parts of the world. Friends of the Earth is a federation rather than a kind of international organisation, so that’s perhaps not surprising that each has their own position according to their national position. I actually have no idea whether Greenpeace in the UK would say they are for prematurely closing down UK reactors or not, I suspect Greenpeace in Germany is very much in favour in the same way that Friends of the Earth Germany is in favour.
So Friends of the Earth in the UK and Friends of the Earth in Germany have different positions on this?
Yes. And that’s fine – there may be different national characteristics that needed that, different characteristics in energy or culture or whatever. Nuclear has always been a very major issue in Germany. Public opinion is much stronger against in Germany – in the UK, we know that the majority of people in terms of preferences would put renewables above nuclear, but the majority of people do support nuclear power. So there are different reasons why different groups will come to different conclusions in different countries I think, I respect that as a celebration of diversity and democracy.
But does that mean that you don’t think what Germany is doing is a good idea?
So in the UK we don’t think it’s a good idea because if you close it down it will lead to increased emissions, and that is what we are most concerned about, and our ability to rapidly increase renewables and energy efficiency to negate that increase in emissions from closing nuclear power just isn’t there. In Germany I guess Friends of the Earth Germany would say, well actually they can, they have the financial capacity and the institutional ability to make those investments in renewables and energy efficiency quick enough to negate the increased emissions from closing down the nukes. And I haven’t looked at that in detail to see whether that is true or not.
Well in Japan, fossil fuels on the electricity grid have gone from 64% pre-Fukushima to 90% today. Presumably you don’t think that’s a good result.
Yes, but you’ve also got to look at what’s happened in Japan, haven’t you?
You know, we do live in democracies, so people take up different positions, and there is this psychological impact of the Fukushima accident in what clearly was a very old plant, not up to the threat posed by the tsunami, which was quite unprecedented. So, you know, you can understand why they reached the decisions they reached. I don’t think it’s up to me to criticise what someone in Japan is saying about what’s happening in their country.
But given that a transition to renewables would take decades, do you not think that the Japanese government should switch them back on, given the urgent imperative of climate change?
Well Friends of the Earth International is a federation and different groups come to different positions, which is a great luxury – but it absolutely means it is not up to me to say what Friends of the Earth in Japan should call for and what their position should be, especially since I don’t know enough about the situation in Japan.
Are you saying that Friends of the Earth UK can only comment on UK policy?
Friends of the Earth internationally, when we work together, we reach agreed international positions, and we work on those agreed international positions, but within our own member countries we are able to argue our own positions – so that’s the nature of a federation really.
But you’re constrained from commenting on other countries’ positions because they’ve got Friends of the Earth groups there who may have different policies from Friends of the Earth UK then?
Well only in that I wouldn’t particularly like it for a Friends of the Earth group in another part of the world to be saying what we should be doing in the UK. You know, they won’t have the information that I’ve got at hand, they won’t understand the culture, they won’t understand the politics of what’s trying to be achieved, so you know I think it would be wrong for other people to come kind of ploughing in saying what Friends of the Earth UK should be doing, if Friends of the Earth in Sweden or wherever were saying this is what should happen in the UK when they haven’t got the information to hand. And that works both ways really.
What about China then – given that CCS has completely failed so far, and China is going hell for leather for coal, and some renewables, but nuclear obviously is a major mitigation factor in China… do you have any comment on that?
Our current position for the UK is that we are looking at this, as we look at all our policy positions from time to time, we are going to do that in an in-depth way over a period of time, without rushing into it. I know some people would argue we should have been doing this a long time ago, but we’re doing it now, which is a positive thing I think. Our current policy stands until we carry out any review. And of course the review is not prejudged one way or the other so our current position may stand past that or it may not. But our current position is that we are not for the building of new nuclear power plants, although we are supporting research into cleaner forms of nuclear power. So again, this is not based on what should happen in China, but the fact that we’re not supporting new nuclear power plants in this country would imply at least that we wouldn’t think that necessarily they are the best idea in other countries, but their circumstances may be different, so you have to look at it on a country by country basis.
OK… the policy says that you are having an expert review process. Can you just tell us what that is, and what the status is of it in terms of the timelines and stuff?
Yes, so we’ve commissioned the Tyndall Centre in Manchester to lead the review. They’ll go through a process of pulling together the arguments for and against nuclear power, both new nuclear power stations, extending existing stations, and some of the fast breeder ideas on the table. They’ll synthesise that and do a peer-review with proponents both for and against, to see whether they’ve got those arguments properly synthesised and understood. They’ll then do some further work around that, looking at the robustness and quality of those different arguments, and come forward with recommendations. That work will be between the beginning of July and the end of the year. That then will be discussed within Friends of the Earth, with our local groups and our supporters. Ultimately this is one of a small number of issues that the board of trustees will need to make a decision on if our policy changes or not. And there will be a peer review process just at the recommendations stage as well, and when that internal discussion and any new position has been agreed by the board, the documentation around all of that, including the independent review, will be put in the public domain.
Well, without asking you to speculate too much, can you imagine a scenario where Friends of the Earth would come round to supporting new nuclear build in the UK then? Or rather, what would be the circumstances so that that would change in such a way?
I wouldn’t like to speculate too much. What I can say is that, you know, there are absolutely good arguments on both sides. And that’s one of the frustrating things I find about the nuclear debate – sometimes those who are anti-nuclear just dismiss all the arguments of those who are pro-nuclear out of hand, seeing them as illogical and wrong, and likewise the other way round. And I think actually people’s positions on nuclear are much more about balancing risk, balancing the risks of nuclear proliferation and nuclear waste against the risks of more carbon emissions. And all that is compounded and confused by how much nuclear is or isn’t needed to reduce UK emissions, or whether efficiency and renewables and energy storage can do it all without nuclear. So there’s lots of different complexities within the arguments on both sides which need careful balancing, and ultimately that’s why it isn’t a kind of mathematical formula about whether you support it or not, you are balancing very different kinds of risk. And that comes down to judgement.
Absolutely, and it comes down to what you consider the consequences of existing nuclear power to have been, including when it goes wrong, such as at Chernobyl and Fukushima – and obviously Greenpeace takes quite an extreme view on this and they produced reports for Chernobyl saying 60,000 deaths or 6 million – I can’t remember what the exact figure was, but it was a long way from the scientific consensus. And I just wondered where FoE is on that kind of issue.
Well, that’s one of the reasons for… rather than me in the organisation, or a couple of other people in the organisation or whatever, sitting down and going through the stuff ourselves and coming to a view… that’s one of the reasons for saying we want to put this argument out to an academic institution, not a think tank, but an academic institution, who can look at the quality of the arguments on both sides and the quality of the evidence put forward on both sides, to try and identify if you like which side has more of the truth on their side with the different parts of the argument. And that’s why it’s going to take some time and why, because there are so many issues thrown around, you know on the safety, and the impact of accidents, and the economics, a whole range of areas there are lots of different extremes bandied about – you know, it needs proper consideration.
Sure. But at the moment you’d agree with the IAEA that Fukushima has been a non-fatal accident so far.
Well, again this will be something that the review will look at. There has been some research about some deaths in America as a result of Fukushima but to me – I haven’t looked in detail because we’re doing this review – but to me it looks highly improbable. But again, there is no point in second-guessing what the review is going to conclude, I don’t think that would be helpful for the process we’re going through.
Well okay, this review sounds very important in terms of the evolution of Friends of the Earth’s policy, so why not just suspend your opposition to new nuclear build in the meantime?
Because that would be a change in policy. We’ve got a current policy – and it’s not just nuclear, our policies are controversial in other areas that we from time to time need to properly review, and we’ve had a bit of a restructure – I’m heading up a new team one of whose jobs is to make sure that some of these positions are getting reviewed independently and strongly and that relates across a whole range of issues… carbon capture and storage to GM foods. In all these areas that we hold positions that are controversial, that are controversial in the public mind, controversial politically or controversial with our own supporter base, we need to properly review those from time to time, and nuclear is clearly one of those ones that we are doing. But it’s important that we don’t… flip flop with policies, so if we have a line at the moment let’s stick with that line while we’re carrying out our review now pretty much – so it’s not as if we’re doing it in four years’ time… let’s get that review through and then we can have this discussion about whether our policy should change or not.
OK, so just to finish up, oftentimes anti-nuclear campaigners are accused of having almost a religious position on this, and it sounds like your position is not religious in that it is amenable to change through evidence, right? I mean, it is imaginable that if evidence was produced which was sufficiently strong, that Friends of the Earth could support nuclear new-build?
Yes, we would be, are trying to be, an evidence-based organisation. Obviously we have values as an organisation, things like equality and justice and needing to look after poorer people in the world now, and future generations… all those things come up when we make judgements, because the evidence in many of these cases is never clear-cut one way or the other. We clearly bring our values to some of the decisions we make, but the reason for reviewing these policies is not to go through a process which is a tick-box exercise, it is a genuine review, genuinely looking at our position, and if the evidence suggests we need to change then absolutely we should change them, even recognising that on some issues whichever way you’re going to go, if you ever make a change you’re going to antagonise some people and perhaps welcome different people – that’s just the nature of that. But I think I would expect Friends of the Earth to base our positions on good analysis, and that’s what we should do, and I think our supporters would absolutely think we need to look at these questions and positions from time to time and make sure they’re up to date and relevant, because the world is changing and evidence is changing. So each review we do of any controversial policy, could absolutely end up by reversing that policy or having a completely different policy – I can’t rule that out or rule it in, otherwise why the hell carry out a review in the first place?
That’s great Mike, thanks very much.