Green activists are vowing to force their way into one of Britain's biggest power stations next month in what will be the most serious clash yet between the burgeoning climate change protest movement and the authorities.
At least 2,000 campaigners from the 2008 Camp for Climate Action are expected to take part in the assault on Kingsnorth power station in Kent, a huge 2,000 megawatt plant that supplies electricity to 1.5 million homes in the South-east.
They are protesting at plans by the plant's owners, E.ON, to build a new facility on the site that would be fuelled with coal – the first such plant to be built in Britain for 33 years and very likely the forerunner of a new generation of coal-fired stations.
As coal produces more CO2 than any other fossil fuel, campaigners say such a step would make a nonsense of Britain's pledge to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent by 2050. The Government is still considering E.ON's application.
Organisers of the climate camp, which is scheduled to be held from 3 to 11 August at a site near Kingsnorth on the Hoo Peninsula, are being open, both on their website and in conversation, about their intention to force their way into the current generating station (also coal-fired) and stop it operating – for good – on the camp's "day of mass action" on 9 August.
The threat has alarmed both the plant's owners and Kent Police. A week ago E.ON secured a high court injunction against anyone seeking to break into the plant, but now the company has decided further measures are necessary. It is constructing an extra high-security fence inside the site's boundaries to protect the plant.
Kent Police, which has just over 3,700 officers and is one of Britain's smaller constabularies, is talking to neighbouring forces, including Essex, Surrey, Sussex and the Metropolitan Police, about reinforcements.
"Of course we will allow peaceful and lawful protest," said Chief Inspector, Des Keers, "but we must be clear that an attempt to break into the power station itself would have massive safety implications, and we will be determined to prevent it happening."
The campaigners' website claims that on the day of action the climate camp "will go beyond talk and culminate in a spectacular mass action to shut down Kingsnorth. Permanently!"
A spokesman, Kevin Smith, said there would be various approaches, via sea and air. The activists are aware of the injunction but insist it will not change their plans. "All of the people are aware of the fact that there is a very strong possibility of arrest," said Mr Smith.
The Kingsnorth camp follows a similar event last summer at Heathrow, where protests focusing on plans for a third runway caused considerable disruption, and one in 2006 at Drax power station in Yorkshire, Britain's biggest coal-fired plant and the biggest single emitter of CO2 in the UK.
The camps are evidence of the rising power of climate change protesters, who now look likely overtake the roads protest movement of the 1990s in size and social significance. It will certainly make building a new generation of coal-fired power stations fraught with practical difficulties.
"If they ever do go ahead with that mad idea, there will be activists lying down in front of the bulldozers at every single site," one of Britain's leading green campaigners said last week.
Mr Smith explained: "We are trying to highlight the big disconnect between what the Government says it wants to do on climate change, and what is actually happening.
"Infrastructure development in this country is still highly enmeshed in the fossil-fuel economy, as we have seen with plans for the third runway at Heathrow. In the face of what we know about climate change, you simply can't start building new coal-fired power stations."
Six further applications for new coal-fired plants are lined up behind Kingsnorth, with the generating companies concerned waiting to see if the Kent scheme gets the go-ahead. They are Tilbury, Blyth, High Marnham and Ferrybridge in England, and Longannet and Cockenzie in Scotland.
A spokeswoman for E.ON said: "We would not want to stop people protesting, but putting people's safety at risk is not acceptable. That's why we took out the injunction and we hope that they will respect it."
Kingsnorth and the future of coal-fired power in Britain
The proposal for the plant has been approved by Medway council. Because of its size it now has to be approved by the Government – in theory by the Business Secretary John Hutton, but in practice by Gordon Brown. Mr Hutton's approval can be taken as read. He and his Energy minister, Malcolm Wicks, are both strong backers of the use of coal in Britain's energy mix. But for Mr Brown the question is much more difficult, because he is also responsible for Britain's climate change policy. Last December America's leading climate scientist, James Hansen of Nasa, wrote to Mr Brown urging him to turn Kingsnorth down. The proposal is believed to have split the Cabinet, and apparently the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and the Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn, are unhappy.Reuse content