LONDON — A profile in political courage may be emerging from Britain in the form of Mr. Tony Benn, the United Kingdom’s Minister for Energy. The issue is whether Britain should initiate its commercial fast breeder reactor program or proceed with a national debate over this risk-laden technology with full disclosure of information by the government. Tony Benn is surrounded by advocates of the fast breeder as the future generator of electricity for the country. They include his own energy advisors, the trade unions, most of the print media and the business establishment. Still he is hesitating for three reasons.
FOR ONE, he does not believe electricity demand will continue to grow at an exponential rate to create what his advisers feel will be a serious energy gap at the turn of the century. His reception room reflects his views. It is filled with pamphlets on the sizable potential for energy conservation opportunities in commerce, industry and households.
Second, Britain is not hurting for energy supplies. Coal reserves are ample for more than 300 years and the growing discoveries of North Sea oil and gas are one of the few bright spots on Britain’s otherwise gloomy economic scene.
Third, Benn is skeptical of the experts who glibly assure him of the safety of the fast breeder and a plutonium-based economy. He sees no need to rush the Labor Government’s decision even though some trade unions are clamoring for the construction jobs that a domestic and export breeder program would provide.
New support for his concern has emerged. Sir Brian Flowers, a respected nuclear physicist, last month authored a Royal Commission report on nuclear power which counseled the nation to go slowly. Too many safety and social problems of atomic energy remain unsolved, the report noted.
The Energy minister is determined to invoke what one commentator caustically called “his advanced notions of democracy” in order to resist a bureaucratic stampede to breeder reactors. Benn dropped the secrecy so characteristic of the British government. “I am absolutely determined that all the facts be published,” he said on national television recently. Two days later he publicly sent a list of 19 questions to the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate regarding the hazards of the fast breeder, and promised to make the replies public as well.
The other heretical notion Benn carries in his political philosophy is that the people, being sovereign, are entitled to be brought into an informed, decisional process on the fateful breeder reactor. “At the heart of this great debate,” he told the citizenry in mid-October, “is the question about whether the British people are to determine their future or are to pack up democracy and hand it over to the scientists, economists and experts. And I am absolutely opposed to that.”
IN BRITISH CONTEXTS, such remarks are almost unprecedented by a government minister. Here is a society governed by a secrecy so endemic that consumer, worker safety and even health information are routinely withheld by the government. Instead of the Freedom of Information Act, Britain has an Official Secrets Act. Its parliamentary system is the ultimate delegated democracy. Business and union blocks comprise the government’s principal constituency.
Now comes Benn demanding more direct democracy, more application of the Roman adage: “What touches all should be decided by all.” This view jars British elitism from the corporation to the civil service.
Some observers are cynical about the 47-year-old Benn, sometimes mentioned as the next Labor prime minister. They say he is really trying to pass the buck to “the people” and avoid responsibility for the decision. It was clear during my conversation with him, however, that he is opposing powerful forces.
Benn has read widely and thought deeply. Perhaps this accounts for his awareness that one generation needs to preserve the planet for succeeding generations. A world criss-crossed by plutonium, fallible human beings, and upheavals tends to sharpen such an awareness.
Readers interested in obtaining the list of questions which are applicable to the fast breeder reactor in the United States as well as the United Kingdom should write to Minister Tony Benn, Thames House South, Millbank, London, SW 1P4 QJ, United Kingdom.