Meeting of closed minds

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It sat for 340 days, heard evidence from 195 witnesses and received over 4000 letters of objection. The public inquiry into Sizewell B was the second biggest ever – but it came to the wrong conclusion.

The inquiry into Heathrow’s Terminal 5 was the longest and costliest ever. The previous records were held by an inquiry that reported almost 15 years ago. That inquiry was held not in the Heathrow Ramada Hotel but in the more civilised surroundings of Snape Maltings. Its subject was the construction of a nuclear power station at Sizewell in Suffolk.

The inquiry into Sizewell B reached the wrong conclusion. Building Sizewell did not make economic sense and would not have done so even if wholesale electricity prices had been twice their current level. Of course, we have the benefit of hindsight. We know that fuel prices have not risen much, that the coal industry has become much smaller and more productive, that electricity generation is more efficient than it was, that gas is the cheapest source of electricity and that concerns about the safety of nuclear plants have increased. But none of these is a contingency that could not have been envisaged in 1987, when the decision was made to go ahead.

The truth emerged three years later in the countdown to electricity privatisation. Ministers, their advisers and the directors of electricity companies were reminded that they were personally liable for what was said to prospective investors. At that point, 30 years of obfuscation about the costs of nuclear electricity came to an end. Nuclear stations were withdrawn from the planned flotation and plans to build more were shelved.

So why did the inquiry at Snape fail even to come close to unravelling the truth? No criticism should be levelled at the inquiry team. Its chairman was Sir Frank Layfield, who died last year. Layfield’s experience of conducting such inquiries was unparalleled. But his role was to adjudicate, not to investigate. His job was to hear and assess the evidence put before him. And although that evidence ran to thousands of pages, none of it was of much value.

The submissions of the Central Electricity Generating Board were detailed and lengthy. They were based on a simulation model of the entire electricity generating system in England and Wales. They included a range of scenarios for the evolution of the world economy over 50 years. But the output of such a model can be no better than the assumptions that go into it – assumptions on fuel prices, on efficiency in power generation and on what it would really cost to build Sizewell B. And in these key areas the projections made were wholly unrealistic.

But the CEGB model framed the terms of the inquiry, as it was intended to do. One CEGB witness talked of “closed expertise” – matters on which only the CEGB was competent to pronounce – as distinct from “open expertise” – subjects within the ken of ordinary mortals. This is representative of the patronising tone that characterised the CEGB approach. It is a tone that is hard to bear even from those who are right.

That tone was developed by John Baker, the board’s leading witness, later to be chief executive of National Power. He described the objectors as “the protest industry with no local roots taking its caravan to major inquiries”. He was not far wrong in this. Some objectors were local people who were concerned about the impact of a nuclear reactor on their lives and their health and they deserved a careful hearing. But most objections came from the professional protesters who oppose every large project.

The lead was taken by Friends of the Earth, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and the Town and Country Planning Association. These groups had nothing useful to contribute to an analysis of the business case for Sizewell B. The gap between the two sides in knowledge and expertise was glaring.

The inspector and his economic assessor, clearly concerned by this problem, hired a company of consultants to help. Yet the reports suggest that the protesters found this intervention more threatening than helpful. They did not wish to focus or crystallise their argument and preferred to rely on generalised objections to the modern world. Their opposition was independent of any facts or analysis.

Layfield was left to arbitrate between the technically competent but flawed and one-sided presentations of the CEGB and the incoherent demands of the protesters. So the inquiry moved to its inevitable conclusion. It approved the CEGB’s plans, with minor gestures to the opponents. If the object was to enable protest groups to imagine they had had their say, the Sizewell inquiry may have served a purpose. As a means of assessing the costs and benefits of the project, it was a comprehensive waste of time and money.

And yet such an assessment was needed, since Sizewell should not have gone ahead. If public inquiries into such issues are to be held, they should be investigative inquiries, in which the inquiry team has the power and resources to explore the issues for themselves. The conflicting pleadings of expensive barristers in 340 days of public hearings were as relevant to establishing the truth about Sizewell as the jousting of medieval knights.

What really went wrong with Britain’s nuclear power programme was the arrogance and secretiveness that goes with “closed expertise”. The abolition of the CEGB has helped greatly in creating “open expertise” in electricity. But what we need most of all is a more open policy-making process that will dispel for ever the suggestion that any agency has a monopoly of relevant knowledge.

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