A brief history of UK nuclear policy – part 1

Introduction After the best part of 20 years in which there has been little or no investment in civil nuclear power, for a variety of reasons, we are now to embark on a rapid new phase of development funded entirely by the private sector. Meanwhile, many environmentalists insist that nuclear power has never been (or at least it should not be) the answer to our energy supply problems because it can only produce electricity. Therefore, prompted by my reading of James Hansen’s Storms of my Grandchildren, I have decided to climb down off the fence and come out of the closet, and declare myself to be pro-nuclear too. So, this is the first half of my summary of nuclear policy in the UK. Although no more that 2,000 words in total this is based on a 5,000 word essay I researched and wrote at the beginning of this year. Details of all the references within the text are appended at the end (with links wherever possible). From World War to Cold War Although it was the need to win the Second World War that drove the development of nuclear weapons, scientists realised the enormous potential for the peaceful use of nuclear fission in power generation. In the early years, due to the scarcity of uranium at the time, a great deal of interest was focussed on the possibility of fast neutron reactors that could use the 99% of uranium that conventional (thermal) reactors could not use, for example: “It seemed that although the ‘nuclear age’ had come, it was to be short lived” (Wilson 1999: 1). However, there were an awful lot of technical problems that caused Atomic Energy Authority (AEA) engineers at Risley and Harwell in 1953 to conclude that “At first sight this fast reactor scheme appears unrealistic. On closer examination it appears fantastic. It might well be argued that it could never become a serious engineering proposition” (Patterson 2010: 73-4). Nevertheless, the potential benefit of succeeding was seen as so great that it was pursued up until the late 1980s, when finally cancelled on “economic grounds“; a decision that is discussed below. However, in 1971, the AEA was still optimistically stating that by the end of the century over 75% of our electricity could be generated using FBRs (Patterson 2010: 77). E. F. Schumacher was a visionary writer, of that there can be little doubt. Long before anyone had begun to consider how to decommission them safely, Schumacher likened the prospect of disused nuclear reactors to William Blake’s “dark satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution. (Schumacher 1974: 114). For sure, the UK’s history of military and civil nuclear experimentation has left us with a daunting legacy of waste. Although we cannot undo the past, FBRs actually provide a means to reduce the quantity, activity-level, and half-life of that waste (as was pointed out yesterday). However, for now, let’s stick to the history… Writing in 1976, Cameron and Hansen were optimistic that higher crude oil costs would guarantee the pursuit of FBR technology – which had almost become the Holy Grail of the civil nuclear industry (Cameron & Hansen 1976: 12). With regard to the almost constant concern over uranium reserves running out, clearly, this has proven to be a bit of a phantom. However, one day they will run out and – irrespective of all the ethical and environmental concerns – in the meantime we are not using over 99% of what we have got! It was this kind of logic that led many atomic scientists to want to persist with FBR as the long-term solution to our energy needs (Skjoeldebrand 1973: 26). However, along with all his peers, many also assumed that all we will need in the future is electricity, whereas (as Greenpeace and many others repeatedly point out) our energy needs are more complex than that. Hans Blix, a man who became world-famous in 2003 as the head of the team of UN weapons inspectors in Iraq, was a long-standing head of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA). As long ago as 1982, on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, Blix made it clear that he saw nuclear power as “the most acceptable way out of an environmental dilemma” (Blix 1982: 4) However, governmental frustration with having so very little to show for the billions of pounds spent, possibly combined with the realisation that we were not going to run out of uranium any time soon, led the UK government to quietly “pull the plug” on FBR research in 1988. It is also possible to see the government’s decision in the late 1980s as part of an overall strategy to prepare the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) for privatisation: In the wake of the Miners’ strike, the Thatcher government had clearly decided that dependence upon coal was unwise and, therefore, pursued the de-nationalisation of the CEGB; and encouraged the newly privatised firms to invest in proven gas turbine technology instead (i.e. the so-called “dash for gas”). However, unable to sell nuclear power (accounting then and now for about 18% of our electricity production) as a commercially-viable going concern, it became a minor player in the energy market; and a public liability that no-one in government really wanted to talk about. From New Labour to new millennium In addition to all of the above, the rising profile of environmental issues did much to ensure that no further investment in nuclear power was made in the 1990s; especially following the election of a new Labour government in 1997. However, the environment (specifically the need to avert significant climate change) is now being used as a justification for pursuing civil nuclear power once more; now re-incarnated as a low-carbon source of energy Therefore, although the UK government has given up on FBR technology, as indeed have many other countries, it is not dead. Rather, it is in the cryogenic freezer; awaiting a time when it can be revived. The technological problems are generally considered solvable, what we are lacking is the political will to solve them. Reports produced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2003 and 2009 have concluded that a time will however come when FBR will not only become viable but essential (but when?)… I will conclude this story tomorrow. References Blix, H. (1982), ‘The relevance of the IAEA’, IAEA Bulletin 24(0), pp.3-5. Cameron, J.C. and Hansen, M.V. (1976), ‘Uranium resources and supply’, IAEA Bulletin 18(1), pp.12-18. Patterson, W (2010), ‘Fast Breeder Reactors in the United Kingdom’ in Cochran, T.B. et al, Fast Breeder Reactor Programs: History and Status, Princeton NJ: IPFM, pp.73-88. Schumacher, E.F. (1974), Small is Beautiful: A study of Economics as if Small People Mattered, London: Abacus. Skjoeldebrand, R. (1973), ‘The need for Fast Breeder Reactors’, IAEA Bulletin 15(5), pp.24-6. Wilson (1999), ‘The Changing Need for a Breeder Reactor’, Proceedings of the Uranium Institute’s 24th Annual Symposium held in London, 8-10 September 1999.


About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Energy Crisis, Environment, James Hansen, Politics, Storms of my Grandchildren and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A brief history of UK nuclear policy – part 1

  1. pendantry says:

    After the best part of 20 years in which there has been little or no investment in civil nuclear power, for a variety of reasons, we are now to embark on a rapid new phase of development funded entirely by the private sector.Objection, m’lud!


    • Anthropocene Reality says:

      Nothing I have now admitted changes the fact that the development (operation and maintenance) of the new power stations will be entirely borne by the private sector. However, if people are going to insist that nuclear is technologically elitist and/or lining the pockets of the already-wealthy, the question that needs to be answered is can humanity do without nuclear energy in the long run?


      • pendantry says:

        I would answer that question by stating that, in the long run, humanity will not survive unless it learns to stop fouling its own nest.


      • Anthropocene Reality says:

        Agreed but, with regard to our problematic tendency to “foul our own nest”, rather than nuclear waste (a problem we have already created), I think we should be focussing on a problem we are only just beginning to create – and could yet prevent – namely Fracking.


  2. Pingback: Newsflash: Renewables are cheaper « Anthropocene Reality

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