The UK has the skills and technology to develop an independent nuclear industry Robin Pagnmenta
There are few areas where Britain has taken a more egregiously muddled approach to industrial policy than telecoms. One of them is nuclear power, where the Government has performed a series of tortuous policy backflips which makes the U-turn over Huawei look positively slick.
First ministers flogged off Britain’s stake in one of the world’s top reactor developers, Westinghouse, and then all of the nation’s existing fleet of nuclear power stations in the form of British Energy, before embarking on a wholesale renewal of the industry in a quest for carbon-free energy.
The result has put the future of the nation’s most critical infrastructure in the hands of two foreign powers: France and China, a nation widely accused of industrial espionage and the routine use of cyberhacking to intimidate its foes.
It has saddled British consumers with a mind-boggling bill that makes the £2bn strip-out of Huawei gear from the nation’s 5G network look like peanuts.
And what’s more, it has led to Britain buying back – at huge expense – a technology it originally invented.
Much like its history as a pioneer of modern telecoms, Britain built the world’s first civil nuclear power plant at Calder Hall in Cumbria. It was opened by a youthful Queen Elizabeth one sunny day in 1956.
Back then, the UK’s atomic knowhow was such that a few years later in the Seventies, it helped France develop its own fleet of reactors to help it cope with the oil crisis.
Quite how we got from there to here is a sorry tale of fumbling Whitehall incompetence and an utter lack of long-term strategic thinking. After all, Britain has had nearly enough energy ministers to fill an old-fashioned telephone directory – and just as many policy changes to boot. The discovery of North Sea oil fuelled the neglect of Britain’s nuclear industry too but it doesn’t take a genius to know that the approach has been poor value for money.
The dismemberment and sale of Britain’s nuclear industry – including the divestment of Westinghouse to Toshiba of Japan in 2006 and British Energy to EDF, French state-owned electricity company, in 2008 – raised a total of £15bn – a decent chunk of change for the Treasury’s coffers. But the figure is dwarfed by the ballooning costs of the new Franco-Chinese reactors Britain is coughing up for now. The current cost estimate for EDF’s single new nuclear power station under construction at Hinkley Point alone is up to £22.5bn – but EDF and CGN, its Chinese partner, want to build lots more. God knows what the total price for them may be – a hefty burden for British consumers and businesses to shoulder for decades to come.
Nevertheless, even at this late hour it’s still not too late to switch back to a more sensible course of action – and a nuclear policy that would protect British innovation, jobs, skills and exports.
Britain still has nuclear expertise and the ability to develop a cheaper, simpler, better home-grown technology to produce carbon-free baseload energy.
Small Modular Reactors would build on the expertise of UK engineering companies like Rolls-Royce, which has been quietly building and maintaining small nuclear reactors for the Royal Navy’s submarine fleet for decades.
Unlike EDF and CGN’s giant EPR and Hualong One reactors – which are highly complex standalone industrial projects which take years to build in situ – SMRs can be built on a factory production line to a standardised design and towed into position on smaller and more compact sites.
They could be manufactured at scale for export, helping create UK jobs while embracing a colossal industrial opportunity to help other countries cut carbon emissions and tackle climate change.
And in the UK they could be built on some of the existing, brownfield nuclear sites still controlled by the UK government that are owned by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the body responsible for cleaning up waste and retired reactors that are no longer in use. EDF owns most of the others through its control of British Energy.
This week, the Government pledged a £40m investment to develop small UK reactors. It’s a promising start but far more could be done to scale it up more quickly and promote it as a better alternative.
Moreover, it would be a policy that would not actively endanger Britain’s national security by allowing a potentially hostile foreign power to gain a grip over our most sensitive energy infrastructure. Unlike Huawei, there is no question CGN is a stateowned Chinese firm with close links to the country’s military.
Just as allowing British telecom firms to stuff their networks with cut-price Chinese gear for 15 years without thought for the consequences before finally imposing a ban was a foolish mistake to make, so enabling EDF and CGN to build Hinkley Point to an untested design with a harebrained funding model was dumb.
To allow these two companies to press ahead as planned with further reactors at Sizewell in Suffolk and Bradwell in Essex would be ludicrous – and unjustifiable.
‘Unlike Huawei, there is no question CGN is a state-owned Chinese firm with close links to its military’
The Queen opens Britain’s first nuclear reactor at Calder Hall in 1956. The discovery of North Sea oil fuelled the neglect of our nuclear industry