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Chuggers for nuclear take us for mugs

In the sleazy world of energy politics, prepare to be groomed – or even ‘normalised,’ says ALAN SIMPSON

AT A high-powered PR summit in London, energy giant EDF’s head of communications proudly reported that sponsoring the Olympics had “added value to the nuclear brand.” 

Flushed with this success, EDF now plans to harness a new team of company volunteers who will “go out into the community and schools to tell the story.”

Their Bringing Nuclear to Life initiative will unleash hundreds of volunteer EDF joggers onto the streets, each carrying the torch for new nuclear. Their stated objective will be to “normalise nuclear to consumers.”

So, just when you thought it might be safe to step out a bit more — when double glazing salesmen, charity fundraisers and energy company “swappers” might be taking a breather — a new sort of “chugger” is about to hit the streets. 

You don’t have to fear being Saved for God or tapped for a standing order.

These chuggers will just want to normalise you. 

This news comes in the middle of a strange week.

Max Clifford, that other well known PR guru, is about to be sent to prison for trying to normalise acceptance of other sorts of nefarious activities. 

The government, in its turn, chose this moment to effectively twin Sellafield with Fukushima, adding a whole new dimension to the notion of Bringing Nuclear to Life.

Armed with such endorsements, and in keeping with the Olympic spirit, I guess the chuggers-for-nukes can at least (legitimately) advise the public that, in the event of a nuclear accident, running like **** may be your best bet.

It is, however, the notion of being normalised that intrigues me. 

Once during my time in Parliament I organised a briefing session from a big PR company on how opinion-forming works. 

The quid pro quo, with no cash involved, was that the MPs would take part in an “opinion gathering” exercise at the end. 

We were asked questions about what companies we knew in different sectors of the economy and how we rated them. 

Then we were asked how we would rate a variety of consumer products. 

But the bulk of questions were reserved for energy. 

At this time nuclear was dead in the water. 

But it didn’t take much to see that the questions were all fishing for an angle that might bring it back to life again. 

Afterwards, the company admitted they had been commissioned by the nuclear industry to find some “acceptability” peg the industry might hang its coat on.

Climate change had begun to grip an edge of the political landscape. Renewable energy was clean, green, virtuous and popular. 

So the PR guys started to run a piggy-back strategy. What about renewables and nuclear, part of a “balanced” energy policy.

Suddenly, nuclear had found a friend (or the semblance of one) who could get them back into the game. 

MPs fell for it in droves. It didn’t take long before the industry tired of the notion of balance. 

EDF’s chief executive Vincent de Rivaz settled himself in the cafe area of Portcullis House and earnestly warned MPs not to get too enamoured with renewables, as “they could kill off the case for nuclear.” 

I suppose that privately even he could see that tomorrow’s energy systems would not be as dependent on “base load” power as yesterday’s were.

Still, by then the PR boys had worked their charms. Nuclear was back in the game. 

Stage two of the plan had to address costs. 

Here the industry faced a dilemma. 

For years it had argued it didn’t need subsidies — just removing planning constraints that placed huge costs and delays around their necks would allow nuclear to show just what it could deliver.

It was at this point that reality struck home.

The nuclear industry had to acknowledge, at least to itself, that it could barely sell you a bus ticket without trebling its price. 

EDF faces a wall of debts and a financial sector reluctant to loan it money. 

Claims that nuclear offered the cheapest and cleanest energy in town required some other suckers to pick up the bills for decommissioning, waste management, insurance and new construction. 

So, congratulations Joe and Jean Public, this is where you come in.

Labour had caved in to demands that nuclear waste management costs — an eye-watering £85 billion — would be picked up by the public. But this was still not enough of a “level playing field” for nuclear to survive on. 

“The cheapest energy ever” needed shedloads of new cash to make it cheap. 

Fortunately — for nuclear, but not for Joe and Jean Public — the coalition government then rolled over and agreed the taxpayer would pick up all the rest of the bills too.

So, in the week EDF announced its Bringing Nuclear to Life campaign, the Department of Energy and Climate Change slipped in an extra little sweetener of its own. 

In a paper entitled Estimates it listed an extra £29bn of public money going into “contingent liabilities,” specifically connected to contracts for “difference payments” that will subsidise new nuclear.

This may sound nit-picking, but for the money being thrown at new nuclear you could scrap the bedroom tax, double renewable energy and take every household on Britain out of fuel poverty. 

It would still, of course, be public money. But it’s use would be far more effective in saving lives and cutting carbon than in bailing out a near bankrupt corporation.

So, while other countries are racing into demand reduction or decentralised energy generation, distribution and storage, and while Europe looks at the energy security to be found in increased interconnection, us Brits can expect to be “normalised” into acceptance of clapped-out claims about an energy source that never was and never will be economic.

But you have to give it to the PR guys — they really know how to sell soap to suckers.

Knowing that the economics will never stand up to scrutiny, they have to build acceptance on something else. 

Fear of “the lights going out” is one angle, but it’s not a secure one. 

The more that smart technologies allow communities to move towards their own sustainable energy systems, the less willing the public will be to pay for obsolete energy highways. 

They will become as last century as public phone boxes.

The industry knows it has to try to sell virtue. 

That is why David Cameron consistently refers — inaccurately — to nuclear as carbon-free energy. 

Clean and Green, that has to be the message if we are to be normalised into loving nuclear enough to pay its extravagant costs. 

I’ve even heard the term “green nuclear” used as the shorthand message as to how to save the planet.

As oxymorons go, I have to admit it’s a bit of a belter. 

There are phrases that almost defy belief that they could ever turn up in the same sentence, like the words “He’s a good bloke” and “Jimmy Savile.”

But “green nuclear” will begin to make its way into the sales patter that normalisers use to retell the nuclear tale.

Never underestimate either the chutzpah of the advertising industry or the desperation of an energy giant in search of an economic lifeline.

Are we daft enough to fall for it? 

Having bought the political parties, the industry believes the public can learn to love the financial millstone that new nuclear requires. 

We will have to see whether sanity and technology proves them wrong. Go carefully around the streets.

Alan Simpson is an independent adviser on energy and was Labour MP for Nottingham South from 1992 to 2010.

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