'My centre is giving way, my right is in retreat; situation excellent. I shall advance', said First World War commander Marshall Foch as he contemplated defeat at the Marne. He pushed forward to victory. Sir Bernard Ingham, big gun in the world of political spin and new champion for nuclear energy, says Foch's words sum up nuclear power's embattled position. Nuclear has the opportunity to succeed from a position of retreat 'if it has the courage and verve to seize it'.
Ingham is secretary of lobby group Supporters of Nuclear Energy which he founded and launched last June. SONE is 150- members strong and still recruiting. It claims the active support of Members of Parliament, academics and senior industrialists.
SONE is being run on a shoestring with Ingham the nearest thing it has to full-time staff. In addition to several other commitments he is also a consultant to BNFL and professor in political marketing at Middlesex University. SONE is not set up to mount glossy media campaigns and Ingham is unlikely to go out headline-grabbing in an inflatable speed-boat like the nuclear sector's enemy, Greenpeace. However, it is well equipped to conduct business at industry lunches, in gentlemen's club smoking rooms, at the House of Commons members' bar and on the letters pages of the national press.
Ingham has a lifetime of bruising experience in the political arena, including a spell as information director at the Department of Energy from 1974-79 and, more famously, as press secretary to Margaret Thatcher for 11 years when she was Prime Minister.
'The problem with nuclear energy is not technological but political. As with everything, it is about public opinion,' he says. SONE will be pushing against the popular and political hostility to nuclear power on commercial and environmental grounds.
To counter safety fears Ingham quotes a recent report on the energy sector which shows that in terms of worker injury and fatality rates the nuclear industry is 40 times safer per kW/h than the combined mining and coal-fired power industries. As for fears about decommissioning, he hopes that successful recent completion of the first Windscale decommissioning phase shows that it is possible to take nuclear facilities apart safely, allaying the public's fears.
He believes the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe was a freak and should never have occurred, but he contends the facts have been distorted. United Nations and European Union follow-up conferences put the numbers of dead as a direct consequence of the accident at 48. Ingham concedes that thyroid cancer in the Ukraine and Belarus has risen and the incidence of leukaemia may increase. 'But nuclear has become the explanation for all lassitudes and illnesses. It is blamed for everything. It is necessary to keep Chernobyl in perspective.'
Ingham says growing international concern over environmental and atmospheric poll- ution is likely to strengthen SONE's hand. In the group's view, there is no way the Government can reject nuclear power and meet greenhouse gas reduction commitments signed at the Kyoto earth summit and re-affirmed last year in Buenos Aires.
Renewable energy sources such as wave, water and wind power are unlikely to provide the Government's target of 10% national energy requirement by 2010, claims Ingham. He has campaigned effectively against land-based wind turbines through pressure-group Country Guardian of which he is a founder member. 'My objection is to the damage that would be done to Britain's glorious hills,' he says. Most schemes fail to get planning permission, he adds.
Ingham argues: 'None of the benign and renewable sources have much mileage - they have been around for as long as nuclear. If these other sources were so wonderful, why haven't they been adopted widely now? The answer is they are not yet economic.'
On the other hand, nuclear is economic, contends Ingham. The cost of nuclear energy is relatively low now that the high research and development costs are in the past. Reactors are also proving to have longer life than originally expected.
When many of the UK's reactors do reach the end of their planned lives in about 10 years, Ingham says it would be difficult to make up the power shortfall without burning more fossil fuels. And that would make it extremely hard for the UK to keep its environmental promises. Even if the country's nuclear capacity is not stepped up, SONE believes it should at least be maintained.
The Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions is consulting on the introduction of a tax on carbon emissions from coal fired power stations. Ingham believes this could transform the way nuclear energy is viewed. Nuclear would become much more competitive commercially if the tax were brought in. And by classifying carbon emission as an environmental offence, the Government would draw attention to the fact fossil fuel energy generation is environmentally dangerous. Nuclear could benefit from this.
On nuclear waste disposal, Ingham does not see the environmental lobby's problem. Low-level waste is already stored on open sites, as at Drigg in Scotland. For highly radioactive material he advocates deep-rock invitro storage. If the nuclear industry were to grow, he believes better evolved and new techniques for dealing with waste would be developed.
Countering the environmental lobby's arguments against nuclear energy is one of SONE's key functions. Ingham says too little is known about the industry, and people are afraid of what they do not know and cannot see. He wants to change public perception while the debate is still relatively academic.
If continued UK and European distrust of nuclear power does result in its phasing out next century he envisages an ensuing energy crisis stimulating a dramatic re-evaluation of options. 'There will be no problem adopting nuclear power if the lights start going out all over Europe, he says.
'People value their way of life and nuclear will become instantly acceptable.'