For some it is the answer to the climate emergency. For others, nuclear power - and especially the deadly waste it generates - is itself a threat to the future of the planet.

Late last year at Cop28 in Dubai around 20 countries, including Britain, recommitted themselves to the world’s most controversial source of energy. 

They were egged on by America’s former Secretary of State, John Kerry, who said “you can't get to net zero 2050 without some nuclear’. 

The strikingly expensive technology might not be exactly “green”: but it sure is low-carbon.

Yet there is a part of the UK which remains resolutely opposed to nuclear power: Scotland.

Successive administrations north of the border, whether led by Labour or the SNP, have used their control of the planning system to effectively prevent any new plants.

Tories describe the stance of Scotland’s current SNP-Green government as “plain wrong”. 

The Herald: Workers at Hunterston in 2013Workers at Hunterston in 2013 (Image: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Polls suggest most Scots agree. A survey published in May last year for Britain Remade, a self-styled pro-growth group, found 55% of us supported new nuclear plants as part of a push to net zero. Only 29% opposed. 

But supporters of nuclear energy face a powerful resistance that runs deep in the political elite and wider Scottish civic society. 

Where does this entrenched opposition come from? Why is it so particularly strong north of the border? 

Well, from the way campaigns against nuclear power - and weapons - spliced with those for devolution and independence. The two movements are now so tightly woven that they are almost impossible to disentangle.

This is, essentially, the conclusion of a new paper from energy historians Linda Ross and Ewan Gibbs, of Keele and Glasgow universities respectively.

The scholars tell the story of Scotland’s civil nuclear industry - among Britain’s first, thanks to the Dounreay experimental reactor build in the 1950s  - through opposition to it. 

Crucially, they find, many of the the people in the 1970s and 1980s who were protesting against, say, the Torness power plant in East Lothian were also campaigning for more autonomy for Scotland. This, Ross and Gibbs argue, created a “lasting symbiosis” in politics.

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“Under devolution, Scottish administrations have used planning policies to block future nuclear generating plants, institutionalising a marked distinction with the rest of the UK,” the pair write.

“The origins of these differences are traced to anti-nuclear protests and the growth of a social movement coalition that linked anti-nuclear activism with growing public sentiment and electoral politics, particularly through the Scottish National Party. 

“During the 1970s, protests against Torness power station in East Lothian and the drilling of test bores for waste disposal in South Ayrshire were given a national orientation by SNP politicians. Over the course of the 1980s, the anti-nuclear coalition broadened through growing opposition to Torness and in response to the Chernobyl disaster. These changes encouraged a lasting symbiosis between pro-devolution and anti-nuclear sentiments which were subsequently embodied in policies pursued by devolved administrations during the 2000s.”

Their article, The Making of Anti-Nuclear Scotland: Activism, Coalition Building, Energy Politics and Nationhood, c.1954-2008, will be published in the journal Contemporary British History later this year.  The work is based on archives from both the nuclear industry the anti-nuclear movement and interviews with people involved in both. 


The Herald: Two workers at the bottom half of the reactor at the Dounreay atomic power plant in 1956Two workers at the bottom half of the reactor at the Dounreay atomic power plant in 1956 (Image: Charles Hewitt/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Scotland’s nuclear age looks set to last less than a single human lifespan. It began in 1954, amid post-war optimism, as the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) developed an experimental fast-breeder reactor site at Dounreay, in Caithness. 

It will end when, as expected, the Torness power plant closes in 2028, not to be replaced. Unless there is a dramatic about-turn, Scotland’s only nuclear work will be decommissioning and managing former sites.

Yet the industry was born amid a spirit of optimism and modernity, stress Ross and Gibbs. Dounreay’s development brought jobs and prosperity to the north coast of mainland Scotland. Thurso, nine miles east of the plant, tripled in size in just a few years. It was quickly dubbed Atom Town, not least in a government film of the same name that portrayed a booming economy.

Most locals welcomed the industry. But there was one particularly significant voice that did not: Wendy Wood.

As early as 1953, the artist, writer and campaigner was railing against the hazards of nuclear power in Caithness. In retrospect, point out Ross and Gibbs, this was pretty significant.

The Herald: Police remove a protestor from a bulldozer at Torness Power Station in East Lothian in 1978Police remove a protestor from a bulldozer at Torness Power Station in East Lothian in 1978 (Image: Newsquest Media Group)

“Her apprehension was swiftly dismissed, but her stance is notable given her political involvement in the 1928 founding of the National Party of Scotland, which six years later amalgamated with the Scottish Party to form the SNP,” they write. “Wood remained active in anti-nuclear circles throughout the period of study, appearing at rallies during the campaign to oppose nuclear dumping at Mullwharchar in the late 1970s and early 1980s.”

Wood - who was born in England and raised in South Africa - was very different to today’s generation of civic nationalists with their grip on real power.

She rejected party politics, preferring sometimes flamboyant extra-parliamentary action. It was Wood, for example, who led a nationalist raid on Stirling Castle, then an army base, in 1932, pulling down the Union Jack and replacing it with a Lion Rampant. 

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Scottish Nationalism evolved away from Wood. So did anti-nuclear campaigning. 

Dounreay, Ross and Gibbs stress, was built in a hurry, without the kind of planning inquiries seen for later plants, at Hunterston in Ayrshire and Tollcross. That meant there was little room for formal objections, even from local farmers and landowners unhappy with the development. 

But there was also no anti-nuclear movement in Scotland. There was not a single protest group in 1954. Within a quarter of a century or so there were more than 100, ranging from local campaigns to chapters of big groups like CND (who saw the civil industry as an extension of the military one) and Friends of the Earth. 

Ross and Gibbs sum up some of the different trends inside the anti-nuclear movement. “Countryside conservation organisations feature, as do peace councils, heritage societies, spiritual groups, consumer rights campaigners, and political parties – particularly the SNP and certain Labour representatives,” they write. “What is clear is the range of people opposed to nuclear matters, both in terms of weapons and energy: in many ways, anti-nuclear energy activists saw them as two sides of the same coin.”


The Herald: Police attempt to remove a protester at Torness Power Station in 1978Police attempt to remove a protester at Torness Power Station in 1978 (Image: Newsquest)

This was true of SCRAM, the Scottish Campaign to Resist the Atomic Menace, a group set up in 1976 to focus opposition against Torness but which became a significant voice in the 1980s. Its members were often also supporters of CND. 

Ross and Gibbs interviewed SCRAM activists and leaders and studied the group’s archive to reveal and culture very different from that of Wood - and more recognisable to those following progressive politics in the 2020s. “A core of young, middle-class graduates who worked in professional occupations before, during and after their spells of anti-nuclear activism were central to sustaining SCRAM,” write Ross and Gibbs. “They built more heterogeneous cross-class and cross-occupation networks which were episodically able to mobilise thousands and tens of thousands to articulate opposition to civil nuclear energy in local, and increasingly Scottish national, terms by the 1980s.”

Opposition to Torness was ferocious. Largely forgotten now, one of the biggest acts of civil disobedience in UK history took place at site of the plant in May 1979, the month Margaret Thatcher was elected. As many as 10,000 took part in that protest. 

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It did not stop the plant, which was to become a huge part of the Conservative premier’s highly contested legacy north of the border. “Despite widespread criticism and continued protest, Torness was officially opened by Margaret Thatcher in 1989: a politically significant moment that marked a decade of commitment to developing a nuclear power station in East Lothian by a Conservative government which was increasingly unpopular in Scotland,” Ross and Gibbs said. “One of the first major decisions of the Thatcher government had been to review the Torness case and give it approval.”

This is important. Opposition to Torness in the 1970s and 1980s came as Scotland wrestled with Devolution, before the first referendum of 1979 and after. The plant was portrayed as something imposed on Scotland by a Tory party that was, by the late 1980s,  haemorrhaging support and seats north of the border.

“Opposition to nuclear power and support for devolution were endorsed across partisan divisions during the 1980s,” say Ross and Gibbs. These twin objectives united politicians in the 1980s who would now be seen as very much on the opposite sides of the constitutional divide.


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The Ross-Gibbs study describes how Jack McConnell, a 1970s-80s student activist turned 2001-2007 first minister, rejected PM Tony Blair’s shift back to nuclear. His opposition, wrote Ross and Gibbs, was “two-pronged and bore the imprints of earlier arguments made by anti-nuclear campaigners of his generation. He primarily rejected nuclear energy on safety grounds, specifically citing the threat of radioactive waste, which he referred to as ‘virtually permanent and potentially very, very lethal’”. But he also stressed the possibilities of renewables. The SNP, and then the SNP and Greens, were to follow his policy.


The Herald: The nuclear plant under construction at Dounreay in 1956The nuclear plant under construction at Dounreay in 1956 (Image: Charles Hewitt/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Conservatives remain firm supporters of nuclear power. But their popularity in Scotland mirrors that of the industry they champion. “The peak of Scottish nuclear optimism came roughly concurrently with the peak of support for the Conservative Party at the 1955 general election, who were known as the Unionists at the time,” explain Ross and Gibbs.  The rise of the SNP - and of devolutionary demands within Labour - coincided with opposition to nuclear power and nuclear waste storage. Rhetoric describing Scotland as a “midden” where dangerous waste could be dumped proved very powerful four decades ago. It still, stress the academics, informs attitudes today.