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October 20, 2013 1:28 pm
It was 57 years ago last week that Queen Elizabeth opened the world’s first nuclear power station at Calder Hall in Cumberland.
There were a lot of firsts that day. Once the lever had been pulled, the town of Workington, 15 miles up the coast, became the first town in the world to receive light, heat and power from nuclear energy.
But since then, Britain’s lead has been inexorably eroded. A country that won the race to harness atomic power for peaceful purposes is now having to rely on French technology and Chinese money to revive its nuclear programme.
Britain’s weakness will be apparent on Monday, when the government unveils a deal for the UK’s first nuclear power plant in a generation. Hinkley Point C will be built by France’s state-owned utility EDF and use a French reactor design, the European pressurised reactor (EPR).
Experts say the loss of this global lead has its roots in decisions made by governments in the 1980s and 90s, when the UK made a huge bet on natural gas.
“The mistake during the dash for gas was in not thinking strategically and not keeping a domestic nuclear option open,” says Matt Brown, director of Pöyry, a consulting and engineering company.
But for others, Britain’s nuclear decline began earlier with the industry’s choice of gas-cooled reactor technology, at a time when the rest of the world was pursuing pressurised water reactors. “That took us down a cul-de-sac,” says Keith Parker, chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, a trade body. “We had a technology no one else wanted.”
Britain eventually changed tack. The country’s most modern plant, Sizewell B in Suffolk, which was commissioned in 1995, was based on a Westinghouse pressurised water reactor. It was supposed to be the first of a new fleet of PWRs, to be followed by Hinkley Point C in Somerset, and Sizewell C. Hinkley had progressed furthest: there had been a public inquiry and it had received consent from the secretary of state.
But the project never materialised. After it was privatised in 1996, British Energy, which operated eight of the UK’s nuclear power stations, announced it would not be building any more.
“There was a fear that the scale of the investment required in a new plant would scare off potential investors,” Mr Parker says.
Also in the 1990s, the UK decided to discontinue its fast reactor programme, closing the door on a promising technology which is still being pursued by China, India and France.
1956 Calder Hall, Cumberland: The world’s first nuclear power station is opened by Queen Elizabeth
1957 Windscale Pile 1 accident: a release of radioactive material following a fire in a reactor core
1995 Sizewell B commissioned. The Westinghouse pressurised water reactor (PWR) marked a move away from gas-cooled reactor technology
1996 British Energy privatised. This halted a project to build a new fleet of PWRs, including Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C
2004 British Energy rescued with £3bn government injection
2006, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd sold its subsidiary Westinghouse Electric, a reactor manufacturer, to Japan’s Toshiba
2009 British Energy sold to France’s EDF
“As a result of privatisation, funding for nuclear research and development declined,” says Professor Andrew Sherry, director of the Dalton Nuclear Institute at the University of Manchester. “The ability of the UK to develop its own nuclear programmes and attract high-level skills into the sector weakened substantially.”
And the broader image of nuclear was also suffering, with events such as the 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown in the US.
Years after privatisation, British Energy was hit by financial crisis, partly as a result of a slump in wholesale power prices. A government-led rescue was arranged in 2004, with £3bn of funds poured in. The fate of British Energy underscored how nuclear, with its high capital costs and risks around waste and decommissioning, “doesn’t sit well in a privatised energy sector”, says Pöyry’s Mr Brown. Five years later, the company was sold to EDF.
Other parts of the UK nuclear legacy were also being hollowed out. In 2006, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd sold its subsidiary Westinghouse Electric Co, a reactor manufacturer, to Japan’s Toshiba, and with that, the UK lost its reactor-building capacity.
The situation is changing, however. The government is determined to press ahead with an ambitious nuclear renaissance. Prof Sherry, says that in order to reach its target of cutting CO2 emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, Britain will have to expand its nuclear power capacity from 12 gigawatts to 75GW.
There is a new push to foster nuclear R&D and attract high skills into the sector, and the government has adopted a new nuclear industrial strategy – part of a push to involve as many UK companies as possible in the nuclear revival. And ironically, Britain’s unique experience with a type of reactor no one else wanted might have given it a competitive advantage.
“By ploughing that lonely furrow, we ended up leading the world in operating advanced gas-cooled reactors,” Prof Sherry says. The UK’s experience with high-temperature materials will, he says, “allow us to contribute more to future reactor concepts”.
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