Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Nuclear Charm Offensive; We Are All Being Taken in by a Carefully Planned Public Relations Strategy. Its Mission: To Push Nuclear Power Back on the Political Agenda, Rebranded as the New "Green" Alternative

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Nuclear Charm Offensive; We Are All Being Taken in by a Carefully Planned Public Relations Strategy. Its Mission: To Push Nuclear Power Back on the Political Agenda, Rebranded as the New "Green" Alternative

Article excerpt

In the plush surroundings of the Army & Navy Club on London's Pall Mall, Mike Alexander, chief executive of British Energy, was holding court. Assembled before him were more than a hundred leading figures from the UK's energy industry--all there at the behest of the Energy Industries Club, an industry body that keeps its membership secret.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The point of the event, held just a few weeks ago on 15 March, was to hear a keynote speech, to be delivered by Alexander, with the title "UK Nuclear Energy: fuel of the future?" It was not, however, a purely private affair. Around the room were a selection of top opinion formers: analysts, corporate traders and members of the media. The journalists could not report the event directly--the invitations were based on so-called Chatham House rules, meaning it was for "background use only". What they were meant to take home was a message: nuclear power is coming back.

Alexander's speech itself was simple. Within the next 20 years, he said, Britain's nuclear power stations will come to the end of their operating lives. To meet the country's climate-change targets, they must be replaced with some form of power generation that does not produce the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Anywhere else, that line might have prompted some sharp questions. But for Alexander, whose company owns two-thirds of Britain's nuclear power stations, the audience was an unusually receptive one--and not just because of the fine wines.

They laughed at his mockery of the nuclear-waste problem: his plants produced a trivial volume of waste, equivalent to 24 double-decker buses a year, he said. A ripple of "hear, hears" greeted his suggestion that the next generation of reactors would produce half that waste and a lot more power. And when he cracked a couple of jokes about wind-power, gusts of raucous laughter went round the room.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Taken on its own, it might have seemed like just another business lunch. For some of the guests, however, the proceedings were a little familiar. They had heard the same arguments and met the same people at a series of other events in the past few months. It was all part of a carefully planned strategy. From being a piece of history, the nuclear industry--a fading dinosaur that has wasted billions and left a toxic legacy that will cost billions more--is pushing itself back into the headlines, rebranded as the only source of the cheap, secure and clean energy demanded by modern Britain. The real "green" alternative ...

On 23 March, just a few days after the Army & Navy Clubevent, some of Britain's most senior business journalists found themselves invited for breakfast at the discreet St Stephen's Club in Queen Anne's Gate, Westminster.

Their host was Amec, one of Britain's leading engineering companies, and the menu of speakers was even more select. Sir David King, the government chief scientist, Brian Wilson, the former energy minister, and Dipesh Shah, chief executive of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, each spoke about how Britain needed nuclear if it was to stop the lights going out. Again the meeting was on Chatham House rules, but this time Wilson confirmed what took place. "The industry has been working together to push nuclear power up the agenda recently," he said. "The growing interest in climate change and security of energy supply--plus the election--meant the time was right."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Nuclear power had been in the news earlier this year, but only sporadically. It was after these and other events that the articles turned from a trickle to a torrent--and suddenly nuclear was big news again. Nothing had occurred politically. There had been no reports, scandals, technical breakthroughs or new policies. What had happened was that a group of journalists had taken the bait offered them by a few canny public relations experts. …

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