Quiet meltdown of the atomic dream: Even the industry now wants to abandon nuclear power because it's too expensive, writes Tom Wilkie

Click to follow
NUCLEAR Electric wants to take the privatisation path - a move that would enable the state-owned company to abandon nuclear power, which senior executives say is too expensive, and build gas- fired power stations instead. Privatisation would thus achieve what the massed ranks of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have failed to accomplish: the end of nuclear power in Britain.

The nuclear dream was born more than 40 years ago in the United States with the prospect that the sword of the atomic bomb would be beaten into the ploughshare of civil nuclear power and with the promise that this nuclear-generated electricity would be 'too cheap to meter'. Last week, Bob Hawley, chief executive of Nuclear Electric, said that the cost of electricity produced by a new nuclear power station would be prohibitive. It would be viable only if the Government subsidised it - possibly by as much as pounds 1.5bn out of the projected pounds 3.5bn cost. 'There is,' Mr Hawley said, 'not one nuclear power station in the world that has been built without government support.'

And there is, of course, little chance that this government, or any future Labour government, would stump up pounds 1.5bn to subsidise nuclear energy.

In its recent submission to the Government's review of nuclear policy, Nuclear Electric announced that privatisation was its main priority. The logic seemed clear: only in the private sector could Nuclear Electric attract the finance needed for its next planned nuclear plant: Sizewell C.

In fact, Nuclear Electric needs privatisation for its corporate survival. Unless it is free to build non-nuclear plant, the company will be stuck with wasting assets: its ageing Magnox and advanced gas-cooled reactors will all have to close within 15 to 20 years. It would be left only with the solitary Sizewell pressurised-water reactor. If, however, the company has a non-nuclear generating side or can invest in overseas nuclear stations, it would be able to assure staff that they had a long-term future.

Tomorrow the company will publish its annual report and accounts. Like Scottish Nuclear, its counterpart north of the border, which has already reported, Nuclear Electric is expected to show massive productivity gains, unlike in the bad old days when it was part of the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB). Output per power station is up by around 50 per cent and productivity per employee has doubled. The company is now generating a quarter of all the electricity consumed in England and Wales. (Scottish Nuclear's position is even better: it accounts for half of all electricity north of the border.)

Nuclear power generates a lot of cash now, while costs, such as decommissioning and waste disposal, will not be incurred until well into the future. But this attractive situation has been made possible only because, as industry executives concede, the costs of building the reactors have been largely written off. Moreover, because the CEGB was a nationalised industry, it was not expected to show the sort of return on its capital investment that a private company would have to make for its shareholders.

Britain's first pressurised-water reactor, costing pounds 2bn, is nearing completion at Sizewell B in Suffolk. Progress has been held up by a notable piece of dithering on the part of HM Inspectorate of Pollution over the granting of a permit to discharge small quantities of radioactivity from the power station, but Nuclear Electric still expects it to start before the end of the year.

Nuclear Electric has put forward proposals for Sizewell C - a twin reactor station adjacent to Sizewell B. Less than a year ago, one of Nuclear Electric's senior executives, Brian George, said that the average cost of power from such a twin-reactor station would be less than 3p per kilowatt hour, 'competitive with any other form of generation slated for 2001 or 2002'. Last week, Bob Hawley was telling reporters that the station would produce power at 3.7p per kilowatt hour. The prevailing market price for bulk electricity is 2.4p.

The only way a new station can be justified is if the Government interferes in the energy market to ensure a diversity of sources of supply - a sort of insurance against the unforeseen. This is a respectable argument, for it is hard to see how we can go on burning fossil fuels at our current rate.

Nuclear Electric makes this argument in its submission to the Government's review and is willing, were government subsidy available, to build and operate new nuclear plant. But the advocacy of those who ought to be outspoken in favour of the nuclear option is, to say the least, muted: 'We are in the electricity business, there isn't a commitment to nuclear power,' said one senior Nuclear Electric executive last week.

In the Fifties, nuclear power attracted thousands of bright and idealistic young scientists and engineers who devoted their professional lives to taming the menace of the bomb and providing cheap, safe electricity. For decades, their leaders assured them that this was happening. Billions of pounds of taxpayers' money were poured into nuclear research and development. Four decades on, the leaders of the nuclear industry have admitted that nuclear power cannot stand on its own feet. All that talent has been wasted, that trust betrayed, and so much money lost that could have been spent on better things.