Aiming to win a nuclear bet

THE MONDAY INTERVIEW DR ROBIN JEFFREY

The chief executive of any company that has just doubled its profits and, over the past five years, transformed a £33m loss into a £150m profit, ought to be feeling quietly optimistic about the future. But although Scottish Nuclear has just turned in precisely that startling performance, its chief executive, Dr Robin Jeffrey, is fighting desperately to save his company, one of the top 20 in Scotland, from a hostile takeover by what many Scots would regard as "the enemy Sassenach".

No announcement on the privatisation of the nuclear industry will be made until after the local Government elections. But rumour is that the Government believes it will get more money if it bundles Scottish Nuclear and its English counterpart, Nuclear Electric, into one package.

Now, less than a week after reporting a doubling of the company's profits over last year, its bright modern offices at East Kilbride, just outside Glasgow, have become the command centre for the battle to preserve its independence. Dr Jeffrey said: "My vision has to be the successful privatisation of Scottish Nuclear as an independent company."

The company's two advanced gas-cooled reactors (AGRs) at Torness, Lothian, and Hunterston, Ayrshire, are now generating electricity for 2.2 pence a unit. Five years ago, the unit generating cost was 3.3 pence.

"That is real business achievement," Dr Jeffrey said. "There has been a change in the perception of Scottish Nuclear. We have managed to transform the way in which people look at the nuclear industry and have injected openness and credibility."

The creation of Scottish Nuclear out of the ruins of thebotched electricity privatisation injected a new diversity of thinking into the previously monolithic nuclear industry. Under the chairmanship of James Hann (an outsider, brought in from the oil industry), Scottish Nuclear took up the cause of long-term storage of spent fuel, rather than reprocessing.

After Dr Jeffrey joined in March 1992, the two men have argued a variety of causes, some of them unpalatable to their Government shareholder. They have ranged from advocating an explicit energy strategy for the UK through the need for security and diversity of supply in the electricity industry, to the assessment of the company by the Centre for the Study of Financial Innovation for an "environmental risk rating". If Scottish Nuclear is absorbed by its English rival, then this different perspective will be snuffed out. Although the company has now abandoned the storage of spent fuel, it argues that by pursuing the alternatives it forced British Nuclear Fuels to rewrite its offer for reprocessing Scottish Nuclear's fuel. And Dr Jeffrey stressed that a significant component of the deal signed at the end of March is actually long-term surface storage, the first time BNFL has offered such a service to its customers.

But these are ungrateful times. Turning round the company and doubling profits in the past year are history. What of the future? If Scottish Nuclear is allowed to keep the independence to pursue its own business, Dr Jeffrey's first priority is achieving a generating cost of 2p per unit by 1998.

Then there is diversification: in December 1994 a subsidiary, Scottish Nuclear International, was created to handle overseas business, mainly in eastern Europe. "I'd like to develop a portfolio of renewable energy projects," he added. The company completed trials with a prototype tidal generator in Loch Awe last year.

But while Scottish Nuclear remains in the public sector, it is constrained to operate a nuclear business in Scotland. As the former chief engineer of the old South of Scotland Electricity Board, Dr Jeffrey has experience of other generating technologies and he believes that "a broader portfolio of generation would be good for the company. It makes sense to develop into a mixed generation company." Scottish Nuclear could add, perhaps, combined-cycle gas turbine plants to its nuclear generating capacity.

Within Scotland? "Within the UK".

Despite eyeing the opportunities south of the border, the Scottish dimension looms large both in the company and the man. Scottish Nuclear employs some 1,750 staff, many of them highly qualified engineers. The inevitable job losses following a mrger would hit the Scottish economy. Conservative as well as Labour MPs north of the border have joined trade unionists and businessmen in condemning the projected merger.

Senior management appear physically to personify their respective companies. The chairman of Nuclear Electric, John Collier, is a big man, tall and very broad; his chief executive Dr Bob Hawley is also a tall man with the proverbial lean and hungry look. Dr Jeffrey, in contrast, appears almost slight but quick and intense in manner. It is no surprise to learn that at the age of 55 he still lists squash among his recreations. It is a hard game and, like anyone who drives a corporate culture, Dr Jeffrey plays to win.

His wider ambitions hark back to the era when Scots engineers like Telford appeared to dominate the world of technology. But Dr Jeffrey is a very modern Scots engineer.

David Harrison, former vice-chancellor of Exeter University, is now Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge - and as chairman of the advisory committee on nuclear plant safety is one of Scottish Nuclear's overseers. He was on the staff of the chemical engineering department at Cambridge and still remembers the academic excellence of Robin Jeffrey's Ph.D awarded in 1964 for fluid mechanics.

"But I spent most of my time playing squash, badminton and tennis at Cambridge," was Dr Jeffrey's response. He first met his wife on the badminton court at Cambridge, and the family seems to be a collection of achievers.

Mrs Jeffrey, an Oxford physicist, used to translate scientific texts from Russian and German into English and is currently doing a PhD in politics at Glasgow University. One son already has a PhD and lectures in computer science at Sussex University; the second is doing research for a PhD in aerodynamics while their daughter, after an Oxford degree in engineering economics, is now working in the City. All the children went to their local secondary school - "an example of the quality of Scottish state education."

Whether Dr Jeffrey will win his fight to preserve his company's independence will not be known for a couple of weeks. But one incident at a recent Scotland vs Wales rugby match may hold a clue. Dr Jeffrey invited his opposite number, Dr Bob Hawley, along to watch. Both men bet that Scotland would win (it did) but, Dr Jeffrey recalled, "I won a fiver off Bob Hawley, because I bet that Scotland would win by a margin of 10 points or more." It remains to be seen who will win the bigger bet.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
voices
News
general electionThis quiz matches undecided voters with the best party for them
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen starred in the big screen adaptation of Austen's novel in 2005
tvStar says studios are forcing actors to get buff for period roles
News
Prince William and his wife Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge show their newly-born daughter, their second child, to the media outside the Lindo Wing at St Mary's Hospital in central London, on 2 May 2015.
news
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Senior SEO Executive

£24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior SEO Executive is requi...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before