More Nuclear Folly in Prospect

At his “summit” meeting with Nicholas Sarkozy – French President for the next two months – Prime Minister Cameron gave away British nuclear interests in what was presented as a British-French civil nuclear alliance, but which will be in fact a takeover of the British nuclear market by French industry unless it can be stopped.

Rival nuclear reactors

There are two rival nuclear reactor systems on offer for new build reactors in Britain: the Toshiba owned US Westinghouse 1.1 GW AP 1000 and the entirely French designed 1.6 GW Areva EPR.  Until 2006 when the British Chancellor Gordon Brown forced British Nuclear Fuels Ltd to sell it for a paltry £3.1 billion, Westinghouse was owned by Britain with substantial teams at Warrington in Cheshire as well as in Pennsylvania[1].

Westinghouse AP 1000

The AP 1000 is a pressurised water reactor (PWR) design, an early version of which is the youngest of Britain’s remaining nuclear reactors at Sizewell B in Suffolk where it has been working entirely safely and reliably for 16 years already (due to close in 2035).  Six of the latest version are under construction in China, on time and on budget.  Four other AP 1000 plants have been contracted for in the USA, and the UK has granted interim approval with final approval dependent only on its selection by a UK utility company.  The US regulatory authorities have just granted a construction and operating licence for the new AP 1000 units to the Southern Company at their Vogtle site in Georgia.

Areva 1600

By contrast the Areva EPR 1600 design is entirely new with no antecedent operating experience.  Areva (created in 2001) is 79% owned by the French state, and registered a £2 billion operating loss in 2010.  It asked for its shares to be suspended from the Paris stock exchange on December 11 2011.  The only practical expression of its EPR design is in Finland where the construction of the Olkilnoto plant Unit 3 is beset by delays (at least 3½ years) because of basic civil and mechanical engineering faults in its foundations and pipe welding.  It is the subject of an enquiry by the Finnish nuclear regulator.  It is more than 50% over its original budget of £2.3 billion.  This has caused Areva to make additional provisions of £350 billion for 2011 alone, with more to come in 2012.  Originally a joint venture with the German company Siemens, it is now wholly owned by Areva, as Siemens sold its share to the French state when the dreadful mess became fully apparent.  As one UK expert witness puts it, “Olkilnoto has become an example of all that can go wrong in economic terms with new reactors.[2]

Cameron-led folly of really threatening dimensions

For technical ignorance, the Cameron government is in a class of its own among major countries.  Those who have had a close up view or even taken part in government-to-government negotiations or projects will testify to the poor preparation of the British side, characterised by last-minute briefings sometimes in airport lounges.

David Cameron and his entourage operate exactly in this way, plunging naively into negotiations about extremely complex matters on the basis of superficial bonhomie, in this case with Nicholas Sarkozy, Cameron’s latest political infatuation.

British Civil Servants technically and psychologically ill-prepared

Few if any British civil servants and politicians realise that French governments of whatever political stamp are under the control of senior permanent officials, usually graduates of the ENA and EP[3] whose steely pursuit of strictly French national interests over 66 years since the end of World War II is a byword for consistency, determination, competence and detailed preparation.

Thus when the French summoned Cameron to Paris to discuss nuclear “co-operation” (if Cameron wanted to call it an “alliance” that was up to him), for the French the objectives were strictly commercial: to secure for French industry, particularly French nuclear manufacturing industry, the dominant, if not exclusive position in Europe’s biggest nuclear market – that is the United Kingdom.

French and German monopoly of UK nuclear market

Normally a company bidding to sell into a valuable market will go to the buyers in the market, but in this case they are all foreign.  Through its 75% ownership of British Energy, Electricité de France is already a prime customer for the Areva design in the British electricity market to be built at Hinckley Point in Somerset.  The British-named though German-owned company (RWE and EON) Horizon is also inclined to sign up to the Areva design, although it is unlikely to place an order before 2015.

Failure of British Finance to support British Industry

This is a constant theme for decades, but in the nuclear field we are talking of the most vital part of our whole industry.  Apart from Centrica’s 25% minority stake in British Energy, there are no prospective British-owned new nuclear reactors in sight.  As a result of Financial Britain’s near complete failure to invest in this absolutely vital part of our energy future, the ownership of virtually the whole system of nuclear fuel-making, power station design and construction, and manufacture of the steam turbines to actually generate electricity, will be in French and German hands[4].

Unbelievable as readers outside the British Treasury may think, that Treasury forced Westinghouse’s former owners, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd of Warrington, to sell it to the highest bidder (Toshiba of Japan) for £3.1 billion in order to help pay for Chancellor Gordon Brown’s splurge on vote-gathering benefits[1].  Coupled with the earlier sale of British Energy for a similar sum to the French state-owned company EdF, the only British stake in the operations of the whole commercial nuclear field, which is of enormous importance for meeting the UK’s energy needs, is its one-third share-holding in the nuclear fuel manufacturer Urenco.  Even more incredibly the Treasury is trying to sell this crucial asset for a once-off payment of around £1 billion[5], chicken-feed compared with its task of reducing Britain’s £1,000 billion national debt, but of vital significance for British industry and exports.

What is to be done?

To prevent a total French stranglehold on Britain’s nuclear electricity installations, a new British Nuclear Construction Corporation should be set up with the objective of building nuclear power stations under British ownership and control.  Doubling nuclear capacity to 25 GW by 2035, and another 25 GW beyond that should be the national objective[6].  The impact of such a strategy would be huge, not only in bringing a British nuclear industry to life again, but also in dramatically enhancing the opportunities for manufacturing in the wider economy with all that would mean for employment and exports.


[1] Professor Stephen Bush: “Sale of Westinghouse was Sheer Folly”, Sunday Telegraph, 7 January 2007.

[2] Professor Stephen Thomas in the “Myth of the European Nuclear Renaissance” 2010.

[3] ENA: Ecole Nationale d’Administration, graduates of which are often referred go as énarques; EP: Ecole Polytechnique de Paris.

[4] All the graduates of the expensive new nuclear institutes and courses in Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds will have to work for foreign companies – probably abroad.

[5] Urenco has an order book approaching £10 billion.

[6] See Bush and MacDonald’s evidence to the National Grid Consultation 2009, “Secure Energy Strategy” which has nuclear power at its heart,  and their medal winning article “Squaring the Circle” in The Chemical Engineer, issue 844, October 2011, pp 30-34.

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