Arrested development

23 January 2006

Reports of its death are grossly exaggerated, to misquote Mark Twain. The UK nuclear industry soldiers on, albeit with a trimmed-down arsenal and battle fatigues in tatters. Now, with the ink still wet and emitting a pungent smell of doom from the pages of the last energy review less than three years ago, here we go again.

You won’t get a government minister to admit it, but the 2003 white paper (WP), Our energy future – creating a low carbon economy, all but killed off any hopes of a nuclear renaissance. The official line was that the door was left open for nuclear but the document itself stressed the government was “not making specific proposals to support new nuclear build.”

The WP dashed any nuclear hopes raised just a year earlier, when the Performance and Innovation Unit of the Cabinet Office called for new sources of energy that are, or could be, low cost, low carbon and reliable. An expanded role for renewables should be a key plank of future strategy, it said, while there were “good grounds” for keeping the nuclear option open.

Then look at where we are today, with nuclear and coal plants representing 25% of generating capacity to be retired by 2020. A large part of that will go in the next decade, leaving renewables unable to make up the shortfall and a worrying scenario where the UK could be held to ransom by suppliers of natural gas in politically unsettled regions such as Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Energy minister Malcolm Wicks will not be short of information at his fingertips when he takes charge of the review. The viability of nuclear power has been under continuous scrutiny since it was excluded from electricity privatisation in 1990, as has its safety record and waste legacy. Now it is firmly back on the agenda, Blair stressed, and while it had not formerly been ruled in, he said, had never really been ruled out. Political speak, to you and me, for a U-turn.


So, what state of health is the industry in, and how may it respond if called upon to play some form of a role in Britain’s future energy needs? It has a chequered history, indeed. In its heyday, nuclear’s untouchable credentials firmly established the UK at the top table of its craft. Little more than three years after construction began, Britain’s first commercial nuclear power station, at Calder Hall in Cumbria, attracted a Royal opening by HM Queen Elizabeth II while the echoes of delivering electricity “too cheap to meter” were still fresh in the ears of a grateful public at large. Then, came the bad news.


The nuclear industry grasped at climate change like a drowning man clutching a passing log

On 10 October 1957 a fire broke out in one of the Windscale piles used in research during the development of the A-bomb. It was the world’s first nuclear accident. Three Mile Island followed in the USA in 1979, then, worst of all, Chernobyl, in Ukraine, formerly a Soviet Republic, in 1986.

In the UK, however, the near demise of the nuclear industry can be traced back three decades, when a staunchly anti-nuclear secretary of state for energy under the Callaghan government, Tony Benn, blocked any attempts to forward the industry’s cause, in spite of efforts by his key adviser, Walter Marshall of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, to convince him to the contrary. Apparently, Benn says in his diaries, Marshall wanted Britain to abandon its gas-cooled technology and instead order up to 20 PWRs. That never happened, but plans did start to take shape for one unit, at Sizewell in Suffolk. Sizewell B was approved only after Britain’s longest ever public inquiry, lasting 26 months. Construction began in 1987 and Sizewell B hooked up to the grid in February 1995.

But, three major accidents meant the damage was already inflicted, the environmental ambush was in place and Sizewell B looked like being the last plant to be built for some time – or at all. UK funding of research and development plummeted from a high of £160 million in 1986/7 to a miserly £25.5 million in 1994/5. The universities, already suffering from a dwindling popularity among students for the core sciences of physics and chemistry, closed departments that had taught nuclear technology as applications fell dramatically.

Then, global misfortune was to cast the nuclear industry a lifeline. Global warming, climate change and Kyoto were to enter the everyday parlance of anyone with access to a radio or television. Suddenly, the pariah that was nuclear power seemed curiously attractive. The nuclear industry grasped at climate change like a drowning man clutching a passing log.

The message from the pro-nuclear lobby was simple: the newer technology available today produces little or no carbon dioxide, offers cheaper electricity than older designs, is safer and produces less waste. For a world struggling to fight climate change, nuclear was starting to look like the only realistic alternative.

For the first time in some years, Blair’s scenario for Britain of clean, environmentally benign renewables may be only part of the story. Wind, tidal, wave and solar energy might have been the heirs apparent only months ago, but the men in white coats who turned the wrath of the atomic bomb into a symbol of hope in post-War Britain could soon be back in a job.

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