Keeper of the atomic faith: profile

The guardian of nuclear power's dying embers still has a fervent belief in the industry.
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The Independent Online
If you were to advise a young graduate of today what business to go into, it probably would not be nuclear power. Unless you are Mark Baker. The chairman of Magnox Electric claims to be passionately moderate; passionately pro-nuclear would be closer to the mark. Even in these days of violent protesters and endless public hearings he remains convinced the industry has a glowing future.

It is an unusual stance for a man who heads up what appears to be a sunset industry. Only a generation ago nuclear was an adjective used to describe almost anything that promised progress and prosperity. But few reactors are being built in the post-Chernobyl, post-Three Mile Island era. Magnox itself is the rump of Britain's nuclear power industry, the last publicly owned utility, charged with running the older stations until they are decommissioned.

But while the power plants themselves are heading for a radioactive dustbin, Magnox could remain useful far longer. The expertise it has developed in running older plants, what Mr Baker calls "late life management", could be sold to other nuclear power authorities around the world. With three stations already in mothballs, it is also becoming a leading expert in decontamination.

There is also a possibility, fervently believed in by Mr Baker, that the industry will be revived by another oil crisis. "I'm being evangelistic," he says. "Modern society is stripping out, in two centuries, hydrocarbons that were laid down over 100 million years." When, eventually, those non- renewable resources do expire, nuclear will be the answer to the economy's energy needs.

Mr Baker was born in Windsor and has only a trace of an African accent, but he claims to be Rhodesian. Not Zimbabwean, mind, though the distinction has nothing to do with the change in racial policy that coincided with the renaming of the country. Although the school he attended, Prince Edward, was all- white in his day, he took pleasure in singing its anthem with a black old boy that he met at a dinner recently. Where the lion roared of old, Where the sable tossed his crest . . .

The family home in Malawi is under water now, and he only goes back to visit his mother. The blacks, he recalls, used to live in appalling conditions. But his family did little better. "We used to get our water brought up from the river in 44 gallon drums. It always tasted of petrol."

He cuts an imposing figure. At 6ft 1in he towers over most of his colleagues. Like many tall men he has a tendency to slouch in his chair. He drinks coffee like a fish and has a passion for words (his first degree at the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was in English Literature) and occasionally drops arcane jewels into his conversation, like the fact that "the Lord's Prayer contains only five Romance words".

His holidays are often spent walking. He has crossed the Pyrenees from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, and jokes that "at 15 stone you find snow holes that no one else has found".

His interests stretch to being a ringleader in the fight to allow women to become members of the Oxford and Cambridge club. Two years ago he decided that the campaign would never succeed and left for the Reform club. He also enjoys opera, and listens to classical music and jazz. He was an oarsman at university, and has only recently given up squash.

He is wearing a light blue shirt and a navy tie with sweeping sailing ships silhouetted in red. He will not admit to having salt in his blood but there is a clear link to the sea.

His father was a lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy before he retired at 50 to take up tobacco farming in Rhodesia. Another of his passions, after nuclear power and language, is the company's entry in the BT Global Challenge. He even plans to serve with the crew of Nuclear Electric on the Wellington to Sydney leg of the race.

The world champion yacht is at the centre of his relationship with his staff. He gets excited when he notices his employees checking its position on a chart tacked to a bulletin board, and chats about it with the cafeteria staff as he gathers his lunch.

Perhaps he tries too hard but that is clearly better than not trying at all. The benefits are intangible, though, so it would be hard for the company's shareholder, the Government, to assess whether a pounds 450,000, three-year sponsorship of a sailing boat is wise when contrasted with the pounds 1.3bn shortfall in its balance sheet.

His life-long career in the nuclear industry began when he fell in love, not with atom smashing, but an English girl, Meriel Chetwynd-Talbot, a descendant, he says with relish, of Sir John Talbot, the Hammer of the French during the Hundred Years War. He was studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Christ Church, Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship at the time, and her father would only let him marry her if he promised not to move back to Rhodesia.

Had the decision been made earlier, he might have gone into the civil service but he had missed the selection process, and ended up with the old Atomic Energy Authority. Originally he was employed as an economist, doing strategic planning and forecasting but gradually moved into management. For five years he was secretary of the Harwell research establishment. It was there that he met the late John Collier, his predecessor as chairman of Magnox Electric, who later invited him to assist in the demerger of Nuclear Electric from the Central Electricity Generating Board.

His enthusiastic defence of the industry has sometimes caused him embarrassment. On one occasion he arrived at work at the London headquarters of the CEGB to find demonstrators dumping a lorry load of sand all over the steps. He rushed out to tell the gathered press that the sandy beaches near the Sellafield nuclear plant were perfectly safe, only to find out later that the sand was supposed to represent sulphur dioxide emissions from conventional coal-fired power plants. "I felt an inch and a half high."

He has two offices. The one at the decommissioned power station near Gloucester is light, spacious and modern; a Post-Impressionist painting of a French courtyard hangs beside his desk. Two walls are window, one overlooking the River Severn. Half a pair of binoculars sits on the window ledge. Half a pair because Mr Baker lost his right eye at the age of seven when a friend threw a cane to him a little too accurately.

His other office is his chauffeur-driven Jaguar, a stretched model that gives him an extra four inches of leg room. A blotter is tucked in a pocket behind the driver's seat and the mobile phone has been moved so that he can reach it easily. He gets picked up from his Oxford home at 7am, and is often still working as he is driven home.

Most of Mr Baker's experience has had to do with demergers. First AEA was stripped of all but its research functions, then the CEGB was broken up and privatised. But now that the British Energy privatisation has finally been accomplished, he is finally free to begin a merger. The Government White Paper on the industry called for Magnox to be merged with British Nuclear Fuels Limited, and he has already begun talks with his counterpart there.

A merger would give Magnox the financial strength to invest in new business opportunities. Although it has a war chest of pounds 3bn, this is held by the Treasury to pay for decommissioning of the remaining six power plants. "It's unlikely a company such as this would find it easy to persuade the Government to take on more commercial risk," he says.

On an operational level the company is trying to squeeze as much extra revenue out of its plants as it can. It faces huge future liabilities but is making an operating profit of 1p per kilowatt hour, on sales of 20 terawatt hours (20 million, million kilowatt hours) a year. Several of the plants have been running for longer than the 20 years originally forecast and some are passing their 30-year design specification. Keeping them on line costs money but in the long-run reduces the total losses of the venture.

"I feel more of a duty of care to the shareholder because he's stuck with us, we can't be sold," he say. The loss to the taxpayer could be reduced by the research Magnox is undertaking in nuclear waste disposal. The issue is thorny, and the science is tangled in a web of politics. Mr Baker still believes that deep ocean disposal of nuclear waste is the best option from a technical point of view but admits that it is not likely to happen given public concern about radiation.

That public antipathy, he admits, is largely the fault of the nuclear industry itself. "Radiation kills," is a much snappier slogan than: "The scientific research indicates that under laboratory conditions . . ." Perhaps the best chance the industry has is to keep its nose clean for a generation or two. Magnox's reactors have never had an incident that rated higher than two on the logarithmic 0-7 scale used internationally to gauge them. And the most recent level two incident was three years ago.

Mr Baker, of course, won't be around that long. He might stay on after the merger with BNFL but he does not seem likely to seek another position in industry. "I don't think I feel enormously ambitious," he says. At 56 he is already wondering how he can spend his "third age", as sociologists are starting to call the period between retirement and old age, to benefit other people.