Ten years ago, the Labour government under Tony Blair gave the go-ahead for a new generation of nuclear power stations to be built in Britain.
It was a remarkable about-turn from the outcome of the energy white paper just three years earlier, which had kicked nuclear into the long grass, emphasising instead a push for renewables and energy efficiency.
As a film-maker who’d grown up in the 1980s and whose chief memories of nuclear power were of the catastrophic accident at Chernobyl, I felt compelled to investigate.
How had this power source that I knew only as a byword for danger and disaster managed to pull off such a stunning reinvention as the clean, green saviour of climate change?
Answering that question has taken me on a decade-long film-making journey as I’ve delved into the history and politics of this most controversial energy source, not just in Britain, but in the US, France and Germany too. And what I discovered was like something out of a soap opera — a fairy-tale romance that developed into a turbulent, on-off relationship whose drama continues to play out to this day.
Time and again, the great hopes and promises made for atomic power have failed to materialise. Yet despite all the stumbles and setbacks, nuclear power has continued to enjoy great support from powerful political advocates.
Partly this has been down to a potent lobbying machine, going right the way back to Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace initiative in the 1950s, which spread the gospel of civil nuclear power as both cover and compensation for the United States’s rapidly escalating arms race with the Soviets.
But what struck me as I researched further, and conducted interviews with many pro and anti-nuclear figures, from ex-Sellafield director Harold Bolter to Tony Benn and Ralph Nader, was that there was also something more psychological going on.
There is I think a fundamental clash of world views that goes some way to explaining nuclear power’s enduring appeal to policy-makers over the years, as well as its increasing struggle to remain a significant force in providing energy in the future.
In the old world, energy decisions were made by a centralised, hierarchical elite and we just passively received whatever they decided to send out down the lines.
But in our connected, 21st-century world, there seems to be a shift occurring, even if many politicians haven’t woken up to it yet.
In the National Grid’s recently published Future Energy Scenarios its head of energy noted that “we are in the midst of an energy revolution with a shift to demand-side response, an exponential rise in renewables and the uptake of new technology such as electric vehicles.”
In a world like this, huge, centralised projects like nuclear power may be harder and harder to accommodate — just witness the ballooning costs for Hinkley C, now said to be at an eye-watering £37 billion.
And nowhere is this more clearly evident than in Germany, where the clash between hierarchically minded nuclear supporters and the far more communitarian, anti-nuclear movement has deep roots. Today, the decentralised, community-driven approach to energy is politically embedded in the shape of the Energiewende (Energy Transformation) that’s firmly accepted by parties of all political stripes.
?It’s a victory for ordinary people like Ursula Sladek and her family, who feature in my film. In the wake of Chernobyl, Ursula was determined to rid nuclear power from her community — but she had a fight on her hands.
Over the next 10 years, she and others in the small town of Schonau in the Black Forest, took on the local power company, eventually buying the local grid off them and setting up a renewable energy co-operative to run it. Today, that company, EWS, is one of the most successful energy companies in Germany.
Here in Britain, community energy is growing in popularity, but at a national level, all the major parties still seem wedded to the old story, with nuclear power as a major actor in a centralised system operated by just a few unaccountable players.
Is it time for them to finally let go of the great 20th-century dream of the peaceful atom and accept that the 21st century is going to look very different?
Vicki Lesley is a documentary director from Brighton. She is currently crowdfunding to cover final post-production costs on her film The Atom: A Love Affair. To support the film visit www.tennerfilms.com/donate