Nuclear Energy: Betrayal of Britain’s Engineering Future

When George Osborne, Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer – Finance Minister in normal-speak – announces with a flourish that the Chinese Nuclear Corporation is being invited to build a new nuclear power station at Bradwell in Essex, with a £2 billion guarantee against failure of some sort (assistance denied the British company Centrica), he is basically announcing the end of any British independent involvement in Civil Nuclear Power generation.

Osborne embellished his statement in Beijing by remarking that Britain will thus become China’s nuclear showcase in the Western World, helping China to export more – rather as if he were boasting that we were going to build showrooms for German machinery while Germany made the machines. Our present eight operating nuclear power stations were built by the National Nuclear Corporation (NNC) responsible also for all the ten now decommissioned Magnox stations.

No careers for British-born nuclear engineers

This leaves young, aspiring British engineers with no option but to work for foreign companies – the French or the Chinese. With cars, trucks, steel, most machinery, civil aircraft, nearly all domestic equipment already gone from British ownership and manufacture, why should any talented engineer look for a career in Britain?

What amazes this writer, even now, is the sheer grovelling shamelessness exhibited by George Osborne. Here is a man who talked grandly about the “March of the Makers” so often that most people have taken it to be just an empty PR slogan, as it is now proved beyond all doubt to be.

Neither Osborne nor his colleague, Amber Rudd, Secretary of State at the Department of Energy and Climate Change have the faintest idea of what they are doing. They have no knowledge of the electricity power business, they are completely in the hands of “advisors” almost as ignorant of the nuclear field as themselves.

No will to succeed

Instead of an iron-willed determination to rebuild a British-owned nuclear industry, staffed at junior and senior levels mostly by British engineers and managers, so that it can be a showcase for British, not Chinese engineering, a major contributor to British not Chinese exports, British nuclear expertise will be focussed on de-commissioning old plants, not building new ones. Oh and there’s the everlasting hankering after new types of nuclear plant, never to be consummated by success at full-scale.

The Thorium Distraction

Thorium based reactors are the latest of these, as commented on recently by Mr D R MacDonald who has some of the most recent nuclear design and operating experience in the UK (Heysham and Torness nuclear power stations):

“Supporters of Thorium (Th232) as an alternative to Uranium (U235) are misguided. Thorium (Th232) is not a fissile material and cannot, directly, act as a nuclear fuel, but rather is a fertile material from which it is possible, inside a reactor, to breed a fissile isotope of Uranium (U235). Thus any Thorium cycle reactor system has, initially, to be fuelled with fissile Uranium or Plutonium and then, to be sustained, breed more new fissile material than it consumes. This is theoretically possible, but due to severe practical difficulties in dealing with radioactive by-products, has yet to be achieved anywhere. The experimental plant at Oakridge, Tennessee, often cited as a prototype, did not achieve self-sustaining continuous running and was closed down in 1969 after 4 years of trying.

The way forward for a new UK Civil Nuclear power must be a coherent programme built upon existing light water reactor designs like the Westinghouse AP 1000 – descendant of Sizewell B PWR power station, commissioned in 1995, and working successfully in all winds and weathers ever since. The new technological-business goal must be to build a new fast-breeder reactor (FBR) so that a closed-loop fuel reprocessing system can be achieved.”


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