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Theresa May wants to review the nuclear contract with the French and Chinese. She’s right to, although I hope she is keeping our manners with EDF. The engineers there are good guys.
As everyone at the CEGB knew, as Finance Director I was somewhat of a sceptic on nuclear power. The case for it was that strategically it reduced dependence on British Coal and foreign oil, and that in terms of carbon it was green. In the early eighties, I twice put out under CEGB livery an Analysis of Generation Costs which demonstrated that as a matter of fact all nuclear power stations had generated electricity substantially more expensively than coal stations. The Chairman of the CEGB, then Sir Walter Marshall who was a fine nuclear scientist, was big enough to welcome the document, as did the green lobby, with academics praising its integrity.
At that stage the CEGB was struggling to complete its first generation of Advanced Gas Cooled Reactors, the AGRs, with Dungeness B the by-word in how not to build a power station. It required precision engineering on a massive construction site to a uniquely British design. To be fair, the second generation of AGRs at Hartlepool, Heysham 2 and SSEB’s Torness fared better when eventually commissioned years later. But the CEGB had learnt its lesson, and decided to move to a proven design, the PWR, used widely in USA and France, where most components were to be factory-manufactured. After the interminable Inquiry for Sizewell B, permission was granted and it has been built and operates more or less as expected. The economic case for it though, presaged on rapidly increasing fossil fuel prices and a series of similar stations, has been more than proved wrong. Electricity privatisation, the availability of cheap gas to be burnt in highly efficient combined cycle gas turbines, over-demanding safety fears and lack of political will has meant that no further PWRs were built. The engineering world has moved on. Nearly 30 years later, we’re talking about the mainly French public sector EDF building Hinkley Point C with finance including Chinese Government money. This is to be an EPR, European Pressurised Reactor, a third generation PWR, which is not yet a production-line version and requires much on-site engineering. The few stations being built elsewhere in the world are proving tricky. All this has again brought out my scepticism. We seem to have replaced the old CEGB with the old EDF, and the old AGR with the new EPR without the benefit of national security or good jobs in technology. And the guaranteed minimum unit price is more than double the going rate.
The lights won’t stay on by themselves. So what would I suggest? As an old CEGB man, I’ve never been that fond of wind as it doesn’t blow when you need it. At the tea time peak on the coldest winter day, it’s not blowing at all. The sun’s not shining either, but I’ve been prepared to give more local solar a chance while thinking we’re not the best placed country in the world for that. Electricity can’t be stored; it’s a flow of electrons. What can be stored is gravity energy in pumped storage schemes and chemical energy in batteries. The benefits from pumped storage though are already used for daytime peaks, and battery technology is still developing. To help, I’d have liked a big tidal barrage scheme built decades ago and still think we should give one a bash. Reluctantly, I’ve gone along with a modest nuclear programme.
Now I don’t think we should do the nuclear. We must frack for gas, and I say this as someone born in Blackpool and brought up in the Fylde. I’ve enough faith in engineers to think they can get the stuff out without knocking over Blackpool Tower and St Chad’s Church in Poulton,where I was christened. To buy off the greens, I’d now accept as much wind as we can sensibly manage and abandon nuclear for the time being as a quid pro quo for fracking. I’d try to get as much storage on the system as feasible. And to reduce dependence further on foreign oil, I’d want major incentives for electric cars.
I don’t think the nuclear industry will regain the confidence of the political process with uranium based reactors. Fusion reactors are still a pipe-dream. There is some talk of using the more readily available thorium, which can’t really be used in bombs, a big plus, and that’s where I’d focus developments. India has loads of the stuff.
Come on, engineers and greens. What have I got wrong? Come on, Prime Minister. Let’s get this right.