Chris Baugh, Assistant General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union offers a trade unionist perspective on the nuclear power debate.
In January this year I took part in the ‘Great Nuclear Power Debate’, hosted by Battersea and Wandsworth trades council. So far as I am aware this was the first time that unions, known to be divided on this issue, had openly debated it.
This has been a traditional battleground between environmental groups - which have argued that nuclear power is a dangerous, polluting technology and that a solution has yet to be found for the long-term storage of highly toxic nuclear waste - and unions which organise workers in this sector who have understandably argued the case for jobs.
I recall, as a young activist in the late 1970s, leafleting workers at Sellafield about the dangers of nuclear power. The hostile reception didn’t change my views on nuclear, but it did convince me that the trade union movement needed to develop a strategy for safeguarding members’ jobs which also protects the environment.
The ground has recently shifted however with some leading environmentalists coming out in support of nuclear while a few unions which previously hadn’t taken a position on this issue have come out against. My own union, PCS, is an example of this. In 2006 a motion was carried at our annual delegate conference opposing the building of a new generation of nuclear power stations - on the grounds of cost, safety and the risk of nuclear proliferation - supporting instead investment in renewable technologies.
So I came to debate the issue alongside a senior campaigner from Greenpeace. On the pro side of the argument was the GMB convenor for Sellafield along with a representative from the Nuclear Industry Association. GMB argues that nuclear power has an important role to play as part of a balanced energy mix – claiming it is safe, reliable and provides secure, well-paid jobs - and can complement the development of renewables.
Greenpeace, on the other hand, argues that nuclear is not only unnecessary but undermines the case for renewables. The Greenpeace speaker gave a good example of this. The renewables division of the French energy giant EDF had withdrawn its application to build a wind farm in Somerset after the parent company had sought permission to carry out exploratory excavations with a view to building a new nuclear power station at nearby Hinckley Point. It is clear which technology is considered to be the more profitable - and this gets to the core of the issue.
As I argued in the debate, the protagonists and antagonists need to establish common ground. And if there is one thing we are agreed on it is that if we are going to be successful in stopping the destruction of our planet we cannot rely on the market. It won’t deliver safe, low carbon jobs, it won’t defend the interests of working people and it certainly won’t protect the planet – as the recent BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrates.
A huge political attraction that renewable technologies have, when compared with nuclear, is that they provide the opportunity to decentralise energy, thereby increasing energy security. Schemes such as community owned wind farms, local energy service companies and feed-in tariffs provide the opportunity to take energy production away from the multinationals and put it into the hands of people and local communities.
We need to continue to argue for public investment in renewable technologies and make the case for democratic forms of public ownership. This can help engage trade unionists in the debate and point the way to an alternative economic system that places social need and the future of our planet above profit.
Chris Baugh is the Assistant General Secretary (AGS) of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS). He has over 30 years of trade union experience in PCS and predecessor unions having served as National Vice President and as a member of the National Executive Committee for many years. Chris worked for the Land Registry from 1976 and was the lead negotiator and PCS Land Registry Group President when he took up his elected AGS post in 2004. As a socialist and life member of Blackpool & Fylde Trades Council he has been involved over many years in a variety of community and trade union based campaigns. Part of Chris’s AGS responsibilities is to lead on green issues for PCS. This includes representing PCS on the policy group of the Trade Union Sustainable Development Advisory Committee (TUSDAC) - the main forum for consultation between government and trade unions on sustainable development issues as well as chairing PCS’s ‘greening the workplace’ task group which is responsible for taking forward PCS policy on green issues.