see events
⬅ Back
Jessica Holtaway
February 21, 2024

To cope is to fight (for green energy)

A discussion with anti-nuclear campaigners Katy Attwater and Roy Pumfrey. We discuss the realities of living in Somerset’s nuclear evacuation zone and the sci-fi fantasy of ‘clean’ nuclear energy.

“If you want to lose friends, talk about Nuclear,” says Katy, wryly.  We’ve been talking online, with Roy, about the realities of living in a nuclear evacuation zone.  I know what she means - I write about nuclear culture (through a metaphorical ‘hazmat suit’ of art research). It’s hard to think about the magnitude and risk of our nuclear technologies. It feels depressing and dry. If I mention my research, I sometimes see people’s eyes glaze over slightly. I’m able to think about nuclear issues for short bursts of time, through looking at art that responds to life in the nuclear age. The wonderful writer Gabriele Schwab explains that this is a psychological coping mechanism, a kind of splitting or displacing of reality, to evade the acute anxiety that ‘the nuclear’ can provoke.

Roy and Katy live in a nuclear evacuation zone in Somerset.  Because of this (partly) they are part of the Stop Hinkley Campaign in Somerset.  It’s a campaign group, established in 1983, that advocates for green energy.  Here, to fight for green energy is to resist the development of nuclear reactors on the Bristol Channel and the Severn Estuary. There are 3 nuclear power stations on the North Somerset Coast: Hinkley A, B and C. The Stop Hinkley Campaign was instrumental in bringing about the closure of Hinkley Point A in 2000. But whilst A and B are now closed (the dismantling Hinkley B started in 2022), Hinkley C is one of the largest nuclear construction sites in Europe.  

Roy began campaigning against nuclear energy production as a response to the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986 – hailed the worst nuclear disaster in history. How did the British government respond to the images and accounts of radiation sickness and the huge cost of the ‘clean-up’ (an estimated £53 billion pounds)? They decided to build a 3rd nuclear power station at Hinkley Point, a process which began in 1988.  But this attempt didn’t work. It was just too expensive. Plans were not resumed until 2008. This was when Katy joined the fight for green energy, during the ‘nuclear renaissance’, as it was then branded by the New Labour government.  She realised that she, her children and her grandchildren, lived in an area at high risk from nuclear contamination.

Katy is acutely aware of the prevalence of cancers within the local community. There isn’t yet clear data on cancer cases in areas where nuclear waste is created and changes hands.  But this doesn’t mean that harmful effects are not proliferating. A journalist once described nuclear radiation as ‘malign glitter’: it gets everywhere, ‘malign’ in that it can pass through skin and bone.  It changes whatever it lands on.  The problem is that research into nuclear waste disposal and its impact on local communities just isn’t happening.  Governments don’t want to know. Many people don’t want to know. Capitalist culture tells us comforting stories of progress and development, and we fund research accordingly – we don’t want research to expose us to our worst fears.  

But back to Hinkley. ‘We've ended up as the guinea pig for new nuclear…and it's not going well so well’ explains Roy. The hold-ups and hesitations in the development of the power plant show awareness of its expense and (lack of) efficiency. There is a kind of desperate optimism around nuclear energy production. For Roy ‘nuclear just isn't going to happen quickly enough or cheaply enough’ to fill the gaps that will appear as we phaseout oil and gas. Renewables, such as wave power and air and water turbines, are cheaper and more manageable. Yes, they have their own issues, but there are practical steps to address these…at least, more practical than relying on the creation of a ‘atomic priesthood’, fascinating as it is.

It is possible to create all the energy we need through renewable energy landscapes. The technology exists and it’s affordable…in fact we can’t afford not to pursue renewables. The promise of clean nuclear energy is always just around the corner, the results expected 30 years ahead, a tantalising mirage in the ecological deserts we are generating. So why aren’t we pursuing renewables?  In short, renewables open up a potential decentralisation of power production that doesn’t fit into, or add to, the capitalist machine.

This is getting a bit diffuse and overwhelming, isn’t it?  Time to bring things back to Somerset. I’m curious about what it’s like living so close to a nuclear power station. Aside from the ghost of the nuclear-to-come, it’s ‘safe’ for now. In the meantime, though, 250 football pitches of ancient woodland have been cut down to make way for the Hinkley reactors. Roy describes driving along the M5 in the evening, encountering a huge light dome in the sky – the refraction of light from the plant. It seems that dystopia is here already, it’s just happening slowly.  

And so what next? I’m writing this, feeling anxious.  Soon I’ll switch that part of my brain off and go food shopping. There must be another way, surely. For Katy and Roy, to cope is to fight.  They have brought their business acumen, anger and eloquence to what Katy describes as a ‘crusade’.  It seems like a violent word, but when I hear it, I feel a kind of call-to-arms.  The fight isn’t against some omniscient Marvel-like villain, it’s a series of micro-battles: against EDF to stop the death of millions of fish per day, because they are refusing to install acoustic fish deterrents; against biased governmental boards; against pervading apathy. And, importantly, there are groups of fighters all around the world, connecting to form a huge network. From Somerset, to Holland and from Idaho to Fukushima, forces are gathering in opposition to the sci- fi optimism of nuclear energy production. “You have to be fairly desperate to want to have a nuclear dump in your back garden,” comments Roy.  We may be desperate for solutions to climate change, but let’s first turn to renewables – they are here, they are effective, they are affordable and they don’t leave behind leaching trails of toxic waste for 24 000 years.