filed for SCRAM Safe Energy Journal, 25 March 1994
I can remember the moment as if it were yesterday. A young, red-haired man in a navy sweater with leather arm patches bounded with a sense of self-importance to the front of the room. It was in an old YMCA building in the middle of Edinburgh’s new town.
He joined the small panel of speakers and started to tell the hundreds who had crammed into the room why he was late. He had just flown back from a tour of the Dounreay nuclear complex in Caithness. There they had told him that no-one in Britain was worried about nuclear power.
“I come to this hall, to this meeting tonight, and I see all of you and I know that they are wrong,” he said, to a loud roar of approval. It was a good moment.
It was, I think, the autumn of 1977. The speaker was the keen new Labour Member of Parliament for Edinburgh Central, Robin Cook. The occasion was SCRAM’s launching public meeting, the event from which all else has flowed.
It brought together the activists who would go on to make SCRAM into one of the country’s most dynamic and successful anti-nuclear protest groups. It gave us all our first flush of enthusiasm for the fight. It gave the few representatives of the nuclear industry present in the audience that night a wee fright.
We went on to organise a rapidly escalating campaign against the South of Scotland Electricity Board’s plans to build a nuclear power station at Torness in East Lothian. We lobbied MPs, councillors and local people. We got our names in the newspapers. And of course we launched the SCRAM Energy Bulletin, as it was first called.
When it became plain that conventional lobbying was getting us nowhere we began to organise mass demonstrations, first in 1978 and then again in 1979, attracting tens of thousands of people to the cause. We took risks, we broke the law, we created history.
Those were good days. We parted our hair in the middle, we bashed away at antique typewriters and we laboriously printed leaflets on a messy old duplicator. We religiously read our copies of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. We always went to the pub after meetings.
They were different days. We had never heard of Chernobyl, global warming or catalytic converters. The Soviet Union was regarded as a threat to the world, there was a wall dividing Berlin and CND was thought to be in terminal decline. There was no such thing as the green consumer. John Lennon was alive and well.
It is hard now, after 15 long years under the Tory yoke, to remember how we used to hate the Labour government. They were our enemy. It was Labour ministers who started building Torness. One of our posters unflatteringly featured the Secretary of State for Energy, Tony Benn, as a well known character from The Beano with the message “Benn is the Menace.”
Thinking back, other highlights come readily to mind. Like the occasion when the SSEB boss, Roy Berridge, called us a “bunch of professional agitators.” We were flattered. Or the time we sat up all night planning precisely how to occupy the Scott monument to hang an anti-Torness banner from it.
I particularly remember the long hours we sat in a gloomy basement in Ainslie Place struggling to agree the text of the Torness Declaration, a commitment made by the 4,000 who attended the march and occupation in May 1978. In my book, it still reads rather well.
As an affiliation of groups and individuals we declare our total and uncompromising opposition to the construction of a nuclear power station here at Torness. Nuclear power threatens all living creatures and their natural environment. It concentrates power in the hands of a few, necessitates a military-style secrecy and undermines the principles of human liberty. A nuclear power station at Torness would be another irrevocable step towards a future of which we want no part.
We therefore demand:
- an immediate and permanent halt to the construction of any further nuclear power stations
- an urgent and vigorous energy conservation programme
- a cleaner, safer and more efficient use of our fossil fuels
- the radical re-channeling of resources into wave, wind and solar power and other forms of renewable energy
- the provision of socially useful work for all in energy and other fields.
Our stand is in defence of the health and safety of the ourselves, our future generations and of all living things on this planet.
We announce that we are prepared to take all non-violent steps necessary to prevent the construction of a nuclear power station at Torness.
The Torness declaration gave birth to the Torness Alliance, a chaotic nationwide network of activists whose first action was to occupy and start renovating Half Moon Cottage on the Torness site in September 1978. After six weeks, the cottage had become an important and vibrant symbol of opposition. It was a nice place to be.
On November 14, the day after contractors started worked on access roads, the SSEB ruthlessly ordered them to bulldoze Half Moon Cottage into the sea. Protesters’ belongings were burnt. Inside, I can still feel today the anger that I felt then, the burning sense of injustice that was shared throughout the nation.
A few days later more than 400 people converged on the site to try and prevent work taking place. During a long and dangerous morning of confrontation with bulldozers and diggers, 38 people were arrested. Friends were pictured all over the newspapers perched high on mechanical shovels.
The Torness Alliance then devoted its efforts to organising the Torness Gathering in May 1979, perhaps the most extraordinary protest in the history of the campaign. Over ten thousand people camped in a field close to Torness for a weekend of talks, music and discussion. Via an anarchic and sometimes frustrating series of “affinity groups” they decided to occupy the construction site, which by then had been protected by a six-foot barbed wire fence.
Very early on the Monday morning, captured for millions by television news cameras, we filed over the fence using bales of hay as steps. It was one of the largest acts of civil disobedience ever seen in the UK, the precursor to the Greenham peace camps. It felt glorious. It felt as if we had really changed the world. But had we?
In one unavoidable sense of course, we had not. We did not stop Torness from being built. Squat, grey and ugly, it now dominates what was once a fine coastline, generating nuclear electricity. Everytime I catch the train down south or drive down the A1, there it is: a monument to our failure.
It was opened amidst mightily botched ceremonies by the Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher in 1989. She wallowed in it. She posed for photographs, arms akimbo, on the pile cap. She lovingly fingered uranium fuel rods. For her, it was a monument to her government’s success.
In reality Torness is neither a monument to failure or success, but muddle - the enormous welter of contradictions and cock-ups into which successive government have driven the country’s energy policy. It was characterised perfectly by a front page story in the Glasgow Herald when Torness was nearly completed disclosing the Scottish Office’s belated realisation that it had been a “£1 billion mistake.”
If ever there was a case of losing the battle but winning the argument, surely this was it. Torness did precisely what we always said it would - cause a massive oversupply of electricity in Scotland and destroy the nation’s coal industry. The only thing we failed to predict was that the problem would be so severe that the electricity board would be forced to close down one of its other nuclear power stations early (Hunterston A).
I sometimes think that, despite all the direct action, all the law-breaking, all the arrests, we were not tough enough. We were just a matter of a few years, maybe only a few months, ahead of public opinion. If we had found the strength and energy to persist with serious direct action after the 1979 gathering, if we had found more ways of preventing work on the site, could we have forced a delay, long enough to lead to a cancellation?
What we did achieve, was real. I think we sowed the seeds for the enormous rebirth of the anti-nuclear weapons movement in the early 1980s, which in turn made a vital contribution to the ending of the Cold War and the subsequent decrease in nuclear weapons. I think we were the beginning of the revolution in green consciousness which has taken place since the late 1970s.
Although Torness was build there have been no more whispers about any more nuclear power stations in Scotland. In the rest of the UK - and indeed in most of the other developed countries - the hugely ambitious nuclear programmes of the 1970s have ground to a complete halt. There is currently a short term moratorium on any more British nuclear stations pending a major government review.
Our contention that nuclear power was far more expensive that the SSEB or other power utilities claimed has been amply born out by the fiasco of electricity privatisation. The costs of waste disposal and decommissioning defunct reactors proved so high that private companies refused to touch them, forcing the government to withdraw nuclear power from its privatisation programme at the eleventh hour.
Our anxiety about nuclear waste has helped force the government abandon its plans for the dumping of radioactive waste several times. SCRAM was directly involved in the successful campaign against dumping high-level nuclear waste in the Mullwharcher hills in Galloway. Our arguments about nuclear safety were more than justified when Chernobyl exploded in 1986.
And then there is Dounreay, the fast reactor complex in Caithness. In the 1970s and 1980s we campaigned against Dounreay. We opposed its planned new European reprocessing plant, we argued against its nuclear waste dump and we shouted loud and long about its radioactive leaks. And what happened? We won, game, set and match. The place is being closed down. The fast reactor dream is dead.
In retrospect, these represent massive victories, far greater than we ever expected. It is almost as if, like children challenging the authority of our teachers, we have grown up to discover that the school has been shut down in our honour. There has been a true sea-change in public opinion, a radical transformation in the whole tenor of public debate, so that nowadays to be anti-nuclear is to be normal. To support nuclear power is eccentric.
That does not mean, of course that the problems are over. Far from it. The THORP plant at Sellafield has been given the go-ahead (prompting another fine flurry of anti-nuclear action at Torness and elsewhere). The nuclear industry is fiercely lobbying the government to lift the current moratorium on new power stations within the year. The confusion between nuclear power and nuclear weapons is causing a dangerous confrontation on the Korean peninsula.
The fight we began all those years ago with the help of Robin Cook and his navy jumper in the YMCA must go on. All of us in our different ways know what that means. Overcoming the cynicism and weariness of age, the old lies will have to be exposed, the old truths safeguarded, the old arguments won. The nuclear juggernaut, which we have forced to a halt, must not be allowed to start rolling again.