Pro-nuclear voice in the wilderness

By Chris Barton

Terry Wynn is a strange mix. Proudly Lancashire working class, passionate about rugby league and driven by an unshakeable faith in God, the former British Labour Party member of the European Parliament for 17 years is also a pro nuclear power zealot. He's in New Zealand for a brief stint as the European-in-Residence at the University of Auckland Europe Institute to promote matters European and, along the way, tell New Zealanders why they should consider going nuclear.

He told an Auckland audience of about 50 that when he first mooted the idea of educating New Zealanders about "Nuclear Energy for a Green Future", the words "den, lions and Daniel" came to the fore. Keeping with the religious analogy when we meet, I suggest he's speaking blasphemy in the home of nuclear-free. Wynn, a seasoned politician, is quick to reframe the assertion with another biblical reference: "I thought it was more like a voice in the wilderness."

He argues that whereas New Zealanders may think the nuclear power debate is dead, elsewhere it's very much on the agenda as a cheap, efficient way to combat global warming. Why? Because unlike coal, oil or gas-fired power, nuclear produces none of the carbon dioxide emissions that are the leading cause of global warming. It's an argument that challenges the belief that renewable power sources such as wind and solar will be sufficient to replace fossil fuels and supply the base-load power needed to drive a national grid system.

Wynn readily marshals supporting troops. Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore who once viewed nuclear energy as synonymous with nuclear holocaust now says: "Nuclear energy may just be the energy source that can save our planet from another possible disaster: catastrophic climate change." Similarly British atmospheric scientist James Lovelock, father of the Gaia theory, says: "The benefits of using nuclear energy over fossil fuels are overwhelming ... nuclear energy is safe clean and effective ... "

But although he can call on good company today, Wynn has been arguing for nuclear energy, largely in the wilderness, for at least 20 years. It's a stance that hasn't always won him friends - especially for one who hails from the heart of the Lancashire coalfields. "My dad was down the pits, my granddad was a miner. The easiest thing for me as a politician would be to just support the coal industry. You get no points in the British Labour Party for advocating nuclear energy."

Born in 1946 in Wigan, Wynn tends to talk fast when he gets passionate about something - which is most of the time. Thick Wiganese at speed can be hard to decipher, but he'll obligingly slow down if asked. "What I've seen in my area is the damage coal does - not just environmental damage but human damage. Even today there are thousands of people in my part of the world who have incurable lung disease. You can always tell a miner because he's always coughing."

Coal features in the nuclear safety debate too. As Wynn points out, there are some 5000 coal mining deaths a year, whereas nuclear accidents are rare, almost always contained and even including the worse-case scenario of Chernobyl have caused just 56 deaths.

But although Wynn makes a good case for being an environmentalist - "I've seen the muck and the filth we churn into the Earth's atmosphere, we treat the Earth like a dustbin" - he's more convincing as a socialist.

"Electricity is like a natural commodity we take for granted. If we make electricity expensive it's the rich who use it, and use it abundantly. And it's the lower-paid families who will not use it and will be disadvantaged. Having cheap, readily available electricity ensures everybody can share - not just the wealthy."

Wynn draws on the commonsense of the worker in his former constituency of North West England to defend nuclear safety too. "Do you think any worker who works there would do so if he thought it was dangerous, unsafe and prone to terrorist attacks? Would they put their wives and families at risk by living next door to a nuclear power plant? The people who work in that industry know the safety aspects of it, the security aspects. They know what happens if things go wrong."

Indeed they do. They know that in 2004 they were lucky and that a year later the British Nuclear Group was convicted for health and safety breaches and fined £500,000 ($1.37 million) after its nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in Wynn's neighbourhood at Sellafield in Cumbria suffered a large, highly radioactive leak. But Wynn says the accident proves his point - no one was hurt, and the leak was contained. "All the failsafe mechanisms came in."

What really drives Wynn in his pro nuclear position is concern about the future. He sees global warming as the major issue facing the world. "I want my kids and my grandkids and their grandkids to live in a world that's fit to live in and to have the same standard of living that we had. If we don't do this, they won't have those things."

In Wynn's view Al Gore's movie is brilliant in highlighting the inconvenient truth that global warming is happening, but doesn't mention the real inconvenient truth for New Zealand and the rest of the world - that greater use of nuclear power is essential to solving the problem.

Wynn is no stranger to taking on big issues. For much of his 17-year stint as a member of the European Parliament (MEP) he was dealing with its thorny and convoluted €110 billion ($205.5 billion) budget. He says it was the best job in the world. "It's an international environment, you're working with people from 25 different countries to make international laws which have a knock-on effect on world trade or whatever." In the big picture he's proud of the part he played in getting money for the rebuilding of Kosovo and Afghanistan when the member states didn't want to give.

But what gave him the biggest satisfaction was the €2 million he secured in 1995 after South Africa's first free elections - a sum earmarked for sports developments in the townships. Wynn is a sports nut and fanatical Wigan rugby league supporter.

"I pestered that this money was not going to be wasted; it was not going to be written off. In 1998 it was finally implemented by an NGO called Score working in townships developing kids in all kind of sports activities. It was brilliant. To actually see it in operation has given me the biggest buzz I've ever had."

MEPs are widely regarded as invisible bureaucrats under constant pressure from a barrage of lobbyists. "In the UK, there is not an article written about an MEP without the words fraud, gravy train and expenses - so you've got to have a thick skin - but once you do, you can actually get on and do a good job."

For Wynn it's the small actions amid the big picture that make the difference - like getting money for computers and training so South Africa's newly elected MPs could get letters and other documents written. "I think that actually helped in the democratic process in South Africa."

Wynn is a Methodist local preacher and committed Christian so it's hard to imagine he could ever fall prey to a lobby group, but his support for nuclear power is surely seen by the nuclear industry as a godsend. Has he ever been accused of a conflict of interest?

"I've never been accused of that. They've never given me anything. I've never taken anything from them." It speaks volumes for Wynn's integrity that a little later in the interview he will admit: "The Czech nuclear power industry put me up in their hotel for two nights - in Prague. It wasn't a commercial hotel, it was theirs. That was the nearest I came to getting something from the nuclear industry, I paid my own airfare and whatever."

Underlying everything Wynn does is his faith. It began when he was a 19-year-old wrestling with how to imagine infinity and who created it all, when as he recounts in his book Onward Christian Socialist he heard a voice, which spoke it seems as a native of Wigan, saying: "Steady up, lad, take it easy; the best human minds in the world can't figure it out and neither can you. The human brain isn't big enough to comprehend infinity or creation. You don't have to worry, you don't have to be frightened, just trust me and things will be okay."

Infinity is an odd thing for a 19-year-old to be worried about. "I don't think so. Try and get your head around what infinity is or what it's all about. Who lit the Big Bang? How did it all start? "

Why did he think it was God talking rather than his subconscious? "Because of the way I felt when it happened. It was the absolute feeling of relief that came over me and I felt content and I've never been bothered since. If it was merely my subconscious saying that I think the concerns would have reappeared, resurrected themselves time and time again, but they didn't."

It's a faith that has served him well, but still has him seeking. Wynn's latest book Where are the Prophets? has interviews with people from South Africa and Central and Eastern Europe who've lived through oppressive regimes, plus Northern Ireland Unionist leader the Reverend Ian Paisley, and avowed atheist and Welsh MEP Glenys Kinnock. "The prophets in the Old Testament were the ones who spoke out for the poor, for the oppressed, for the widows, for the orphans. What I'm asking is where are they today, what motivates them, and whether faith matters or not."

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