The chain reaction fizzles to an end

Nuclear energy was a by-product of the arms industry. That was its downfall, writes Geoffrey Lean
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THIRTY-NINE years ago, just after noon on a sunny October day, the Queen pulled a small lever and inaugurated the age of nuclear energy: Calder Hall, the world's first atomic power station, started feeding electricity into the National Grid. The Queen hailed it as a solution to the energy crisis, and the chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority proclaimed: "Our country and the world will be assured of a source of power which will be inexhaustible for generations to come."

Ever since, Calder Hall has faithfully supplied the electricity and steam needed to power Sellafield, British Nuclear Fuels' controversial nuclear complex that sprawls beside it on the Cumbrian coast. But just 10 weeks ago - entirely without fanfare - BNFL completed commissioning a new power station, which will eventually replace it. This is powered not by nuclear energy, which was rejected for the task, but by natural gas.

This humiliating rebuff at the very heart of the atomic industry merely mirrors what is happening throughout Britain and the world as the brief nuclear age begins to draw to its close. This month ministers effectively ruled out the building of any new reactors for the foreseeable future and, as we report today, the nuclear industry is planning to construct gas-fired power stations after privatisation. It is a far cry from the early enthusiasm of this Government, which came to power promising to build a new reactor every year.

But Britain is only the most recent - if reluctant - convert to reality. No new reactor has been ordered in the United States for 17 years. Nuclear expansion plans have been halted everywhere in western Europe, except for France, while scores of planned reactors have been cancelled in the former Soviet bloc.

Just 20 years ago the International Atomic Energy Agency confidently predicted that there would be 4,450 thousand megawatts of nuclear capacity worldwide by the year 2000; now the industry will be lucky to achieve 360 thousand megawatts by the same time, just 8 per cent of this target.

What went wrong? The seeds of failure were sown right back at that moment of hope and hype, the opening of Calder Hall. For a start, the reactor - the basis for Britain's entire first generation of atomic power plants - was not designed as the best way to generate nuclear electricity; its prime purpose was to produce weapons-grade plutonium. Similarly, the American Pressurised Water Reactor which has swept the world was originally designed to power nuclear submarines.

Besides producing flawed designs, the military birth of the nuclear industry endowed it with an obsession with secrecy, a cavalier approach to costs and an endemic failure to appreciate public concerns about safety. It also cursed it with a crippling idealism. Many of the pioneers of the industry, shaken by the way their silence had led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, determined - as the Queen put it at Calder Hall - that this "terrifying weapon of destruction should be "harnessed for the common good". As true believers, most found it impossible to understand criticism.

Not that, for many years, there was much of it. The pioneering British scientists, Sir John Cockcroft and Sir James Chadwick, warned at the start that nuclear power would be more expensive than conventionally generated electricity, but their words were soon forgotten. At first, even most environmentalists were pro-nuclear, seeing it as a clean source of power that would obviate global warming.

The mood changed in the early 1970s when a new generation began to raise questions over the fate of the highly radioactive waste produced by the industry, over the safety of the reactors and over the inevitable fallibility of the people who operated them. The industry, unused to public accountability, reacted with incomprehension, anger and downright lies, quickly losing public support.

The near-accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 validated the opponents' case; the 1986 catastrophe at Chernobyl confirmed it. For the past nine years the industry has known that another big accident, anywhere in the world, would finish it. But the accountants have beaten the apocalypse to the punch.

The US halt on orders for new plant preceded Three Mile Island, and was mainly caused by economics. Its private utilities realised the true cost of nuclear power while state-owned monopolies, as in Britain, could hide it - or pass it on to consumers. This was exposed by electricity privatisation in 1989, when it proved impossible to sell off nuclear plants. The industry, which only three years before had persuaded the mammoth Sizewell inquiry that the atom was much cheaper than coal, had to admit that it was more than twice as expensive.

The Government ordered a five- year halt on new power stations, and promised a review, which was published this month. This shows that, despite enormous gains in efficiency, nuclear power is still hopelessly uncompetitive. And it demolishes, one by one, all the industry's arguments for special treatment.

Nuclear power will be a long time a-dying. The new Sizewell reactor is scheduled to go on operating until 2036. It is conceivable, if unlikely, that the atom might get a second wind well into the next century as global warming takes hold. But in the meantime there is virtually nothing good to show for the more than pounds 10bn at today's prices spent on nuclear power in Britain.

There is certainly no cash; the Government itself admits that the proceeds for privatisation will be insufficient even to pay for the clearing up of old reactors and their wastes. The true legacy is over 40 tons of plutonium - enough for thousands of bombs - and piles of waste that nobody knows how to dispose of which will remain deadly for a quarter of a million years.

If a tenth of the money and expertise squandered on nuclear power had been invested in energy conservation, renewable sources - and even into less polluting ways of burning coal - we would be well on our way to a sustainable, cleaner energy economy. Instead, it is now clear that the lever the Queen pulled at Calder Hall opened the door not to the bright future everyone predicted but down British industry's darkest, costliest and most dangerous blind alley.