When the 30-year-old Queen Elizabeth opened the world’s first nuclear power station, Calder Hall, on October 17 1956, she could scarcely have imagined that in her lifetime she would see her nation’s unassailable lead in this white-heat technology thrown into the dustbin.
During her reign, our atomic expertise, which promised a future of clean, green and affordable electricity, has been handed to foreign competitors on a plate, and Britain’s grid is now under such strain that 57 years later, we find ourselves relying on China and France to keep the lights on.
Decades of dithering by successive governments – Labour, Tory and Coalition – and cowardice in the face of illogical protests along with a supine acceptance of dubious arguments made by an aggressive and well-organised Green lobby, has left Britain’s once proud nuclear industry an embarrassing shadow of its former self.
Today, Ed Davey, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, will announce a deal with two Chinese firms, China National Nuclear Corporation and China General Nuclear Power Corporation, together with the French state-controlled electricity giant EDF, to build a new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset, the first new atomic station to be built in the UK since Sizewell B came on stream in 1995.
The Government has also agreed a “strike price” – basically a state-backed guaranteed minimum tariff for electricity – of £92.50 per megawatt hour. This guarantee is in return for the huge upfront costs involved in any nuclear new-build – costs that exist partly because of the onerous planning and environmental hurdles that anything nuclear must overcome. All being well, the £14 billion plant will come on line by 2020 and supply some 7 per cent of the UK’s electricity needs.
The Government will hail the subsidy agreement, which follows a lengthy period of negotiations, as triggering the revival of Britain’s nuclear industry – the long-promised atomic renaissance. Ministers want Hinkley to be the first of a series of plants to replace the existing nuclear network.
Hail it they might, but the reality is that this deal has come not a moment too soon —and it is no thanks to our leaders, who have spent half a century squandering Britain’s nuclear pre-eminence, taking a ludicrously short-term view and chasing windmills towards a renewable future that was no more than fantasy.
By the way, this isn’t some futuristic doomsday scenario; Britain’s 16 nuclear reactors are all, with the exception of Sizewell B, nearing the end of their lives and will be shut in less than a decade. We still depend on them to provide 18 per cent of our electricity and, because of the appalling short-termism and rush for profits of the privatised power network, there is so little slack in the system that power shortages are almost inevitable.
So how did we get into the position where we are relying on a communist superpower to keep our lights on? After all, Britain’s scientists not only made commercial nuclear power a reality – pipping the Soviet Union and the US to the post – they also pioneered a host of technologies, from fast-breeders to advanced gas-cooled reactors, and we lead the world in decommissioning technology.
If anyone should be building new plants all over the world, it should be us.
In short, we ran scared, and, to be fair, we were not alone. In 1979 the Three Mile Island nuclear “disaster” in the United States hammered the first nail into the coffin. On March 28 that year, Reactor No 2 suffered a partial meltdown. Despite the fact that the number of injuries and deaths resulting directly or indirectly from this incident remains at a solid zero, this non-existent “disaster” coloured global thinking about nuclear power for a generation.
Twelve days before the incident, a Hollywood movie, China Syndrome (starring Jane Fonda) opened, featuring a fictional atomic plant suffering a “meltdown” in which the flaming core of the reactor was posited to be capable of burning its way through the entire planet to emerge in China.
Despite the fact that the physics of this were entirely fanciful (there is no way a molten reactor core could melt through the Earth) the TMI incident brought the US nuclear programme to a standstill. The equivalent would have been for Nasa to determine its space exploration policy by watching episodes of The Clangers.
Worse was to come in 1986, with the Chernobyl catastrophe. Again, this said a lot more about humanity’s irrational fear of the scintillating atom than about nuclear risks. The very worst nuclear disaster in history killed fewer than 100 people directly and will probably lead to the indirect (and unmeasurable) premature deaths of a couple of thousand more, mostly from cancer.
This was bad, but compare it to the hundreds of thousands killed by coal-fired plants, from air pollution and mining accidents, and the millions more expected to die as a result of climate change, largely brought about by burning fossil fuels. Nuclear is, of course, an almost carbon-neutral form of power generation and, wind aside (which is insanely expensive), probably the safest. Yes, there are decommissioning costs and, yes, the upfront investment is huge, but this is largely due to the fact that green concerns have set the planning bar almost unbelievably high compared to other means of generation. (This doesn’t stop campaigners trumpeting high costs as an objection.)
The green movement, which has an almost-religious objection to nuclear power, has pinned its colours to the mast of an atomic-free world. For them, the great white hope was the Fukushima incident in March 2011, in which one of the biggest earthquakes in recorded history slammed a 100ft tsunami into an old, creaky, poorly designed nuclear power station on the Japanese coast. The result? Like Three Mile Island, no deaths, no injuries. Such was the hysteria in some reports that you could be forgiven for thinking the 17,000 people who were killed by the waves were a sideshow to the nuclear non-event.
Throughout all this, successive British governments have been no help. The ill-conceived shattering of the Central Electricity Generating Board by the Tory government in the early 1990s led to the handover of Britain’s electricity industry from the British taxpayer to the French. The dash for gas in the 1980s (for which we are now paying so dear) was motivated by the government’s desire to wean Britain off coal.
An even more serious consequence was the decimation of decades worth of expertise – Britain’s nuclear brain drain in the 1990s was a national tragedy – and the replacement of serious energy policy with mickey-mouse schemes to bribe locals to accept shale gas rigs with promises of free badminton courts and community centres, and an attachment to offshore windfarms that beggars belief.
The last Labour government appeared to be talking sense over nuclear but, again, it got cold feet at the last minute, kicking the issue into the long grass of white papers and consultations. Yet, at last, the new dawn may indeed be here. Unlike in Germany, say, where the government panicked after Fukushima and closed down the nuclear industry altogether, public opinion is swaying back towards the atom.
Prominent greens, including George Monbiot and Mark Lynas, as well as the “father of modern environmentalism”, James Lovelock, have come out as supporters of nuclear power as the only plausible medium-term solution to generating massive amounts of electricity without ruining the environment. For the people of Somerset, this week’s deal after months of wrangling is an economic boost. But there are still hurdles to overcome.
However, if all goes well, the bulldozers may finally start rolling next year, and we can truly say the great British nuclear renaissance is here. Twenty years too late, but better late than never.
Michael Hanlon, a science writer.