23 FEBRUARY 2002, Page 14


David Fishlock sees signs that

this country is converting to nuclear power

LATE summer found me on the pretty new pier at Southwold in Suffolk, gazing south at a dome that marks a great British technical success. It caps Sizewell B. the UK's biggest and most successful nuclear power station.

The pier, a gentle mockery of beloved Victorian piers, is privately owned and part-funded by folk buying brass plaques for the handrails, engraved with their thoughts for posterity. I was moved to add my 60 quids' worth: That splendid dome/ Deserves to be guilden/May there arise many more.

I sincerely believe that the nation must build many more nuclear power stations of the same basic type as stands so proudly at Leiston. Stations such as these provide France with most of its electricity (and some of ours). They are what Britain urgently needs if it is to maintain and improve its environment and way of life.

Half a century after the advent of nuclear power, there are finally signs that Britain is coming round. Tony Blair surprised everyone last year with his announcement of a top-level review of the nation's energy supply over the next 30 to 40 years. His new energy minister, Brian Wilson, is a far cry from the anti-nuclear Peter Hain. Wilson is convinced that the future lies in new nuclear stations. But there are still those who would rather see us return to tallow candles or harness wind, waves and sunbeams.

Britain has a somewhat erratic nuclear history. It plunged into nuclear power in the 1950s, in response to threats from coalminers to use their monopoly on electricity supply as ransom. Britain had developed a plutoniumproducing reactor for military purposes, which became the basis of a hasty programme of nuclear stations. Calder Hall, which opened in 1956, led the way with the

world's first power-producing nuclear unit. It is still producing — more now than it was then — which testifies to the skill and care with which it was designed and built. But wartorn British industry was simply not up to the demands of a rushed programme in a new technology.

Britain's next nuclear notion — in the 1980s and way behind France and Germany — was to adopt pressurised water reactors (PWRs) for electricity production. But it had to accommodate deeply entrenched requirements for safety and reliability, evolved over 30 years of gas-cooled reactor experience. The upshot was a very expensive PWR design. Only one unit has ever been ordered.

But despite these setbacks, nuclear power provides about 25 per cent of the nation's electricity, and this percentage has been even higher in the past. Throughout the 1990s there was a conspiracy of silence from governments that wanted no public discussion of nuclear energy. Initially, there was good reason for this. The industry was in an awful mess, with all of its bigger reactors grossly underperforming, Their solution to this problem was to mount a £500,000 television advertising campaign to try to persuade the public that all was well.

I tried to tell the industry that this was the wrong approach in a light-hearted after-dinner speech that I was invited to make in the summer of 1991. For my temerity I was roundly abused by the wife of the conference chairman and others, and never received the customary letter of thanks.

But the energy under-secretary was present and got the message. The industry was ordered to abandon its publicity plans and focus on getting a far better performance from its existing reactors. This it did a few years later with resounding success but almost no publicity; certainly none from the incoming Blair administration of 1997 which included such anti-nuke stalwarts as Robin Cook and Michael Meacher.

The merits of nuclear energy as a dependable and competitive source of electricity had, meanwhile, become very persuasive. Consider, for a moment, the little-known fact that we are living on a large nuclear lake. The English Channel, one of the world's busiest waterways, is rimmed by world-class nuclear installations. To the north are Devonport and Dungeness; to the south are a dozen big PWRs at Dunkirk, Palual Flamanville (within sight of the Channel Islands) and Cap la Hague, France's Sellafield. It is closed by a cable for nuclear power at its eastern end. Much maritime traffic — com mercial and pleasure-seeking — traverses this lake in every direction, without obvious qualms, intermingling with nuclear-powered military traffic at the western end. Highly radioactive fuel enters the lake from Japan.

The nuclear pipeline to the east, only six feet under the seabed, was conceived of as a link between national electricity grids that would enhance security of supply and take advantage of slight differences in peak demand times to allow daily commercial trading. We were convinced that we would sell more electricity than the French. 'Coal by wire' was the catchphrase.

The reality is that the French, with far more nuclear stations on their edge of the lake, have, for a decade, been keeping the pipeline full of nuclear electricity heading for Britain. They have 59 stations producing two thirds of their electricity, and export it not just to Britain but to Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland and Spain.

A simple solution for a British public that is squeamish about building more nuclear stations would be to lay more sub-sea cables and to encourage the French to build PWRs dedicated to supplying our power.

Europhiles might even see this solution as a perfect example of European union and long-term commitment, for these stations are now expected to last for 40 to 50 years. Europhobes, of course, might equate the notion with ideas for signing long-term energy contracts for gas from Russia, oil from Arabia or coal from Poland.

There are those who cannot stomach the notion of nuclear power at any price. I remember a wise old owl in Whitehall once telling me that each year his office was inundated after the summer holidays by people wanting to harness the free energy of the sea. Edwardian patent literature is full of such ideas, including a boat powered by waves.

Wind-power is a great favourite with the anti-nukes. The best explanation of its disadvantages that I have heard came from a Dutch miller three decades ago. The wind blows the way you want it to for less than one-third of the time,' he said. For the rest, it blows too hard for the safety of sails or too gently to be useful. My miller, grinding mustard seed with his beautifully restored traditional mill at Volendam, simply slept or went fishing in a boat tied alongside when his mill was not working. It was a situation long understood by sailors and by mediaeval millers. Modern technology has not changed the wind. In order for wind-power to provide a reliable supply of electricity, we would have to keep a considerable store, which would blow its real costs sky-high. This is something that politicians seem unable to grasp. For all the rhetoric, wind-power can never be more than an expensive top-up for a more dependable source of power.

To return to nuclear matters, there are certain trigger-words which — rather like certain obscenities — cause some people, even ministers such as Cook and Meacher, to have the vapours. Plutonium is one. For me, plutonium is simply the most exciting of all metals man has refined. Radiation is also a bad word. We have a national watchdog over public exposure to radiation, set up more than 30 years ago. Its science and advice are internationally respected, and the public floods it with inquiries. But most of those inquiries have nothing to do with radioactivity. Its director, Professor Roger Clarke, reports that most calls are from people who are worried about the rays that emanate from wireless masts and mobile phones. Any 12year-old schoolboy would be able to explain the difference to his quaking parents if the government's curriculum were doing its stuff.

Another trigger-word is nuclear waste. This has been a focus of anti-nuclear rhetoric ever since Lord Brian Flowers in 1976 ill-advisedly told the government that it should be wary of building a lot of nuclear stations until it had 'solved' the problem of what to do with the wastes. This gave scaremongers a perfect target. If they objected vehemently enough to every proposal for disposing of radioactive wastes, they could convince politicians and public alike that the problem was unsolved and unsolvable. Ergo, no more nuclear power stations. And so it has been. for a quarter of a century. The waste, neatly parcelled, just piles up, quite harmlessly, in buildings in Lakeland and elsewhere, awaiting an administration with the guts to call the anti-nukes' bluff.

David Fisidock is former science editor of the Financial Times.