John Collier was an outstanding leader and champion for nuclear power and the industry that supported it. In recent years, his vision and determination were demonstrated by his achievements as Chairman of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and then, from 1990, as the first Chairman of Nuclear Electric.
Collier recognised the need to define a new future for the UKAEA as its traditional nuclear power mission neared completion. His strategy was based on the commercial exploitation of its rich technological inheritance, while responsibly managing the liabilities from its mission. He led the transformation required to translate this goal into reality, and it is a tribute to his vision and leadership that AEA Technology is now on the threshold of privatisation.
It was no surprise that in 1990 John Wakeham, the Secretary of State for Energy, turned to Collier after the failure to privatise the nuclear power component of the Central Electricity Generating Board, and invited him to be the first Chairman of Nuclear Electric, set up to run the nuclear power stations in England and Wales.
Collier accepted this challenge, recognising the immensity of the task, and with some regrets at having to leave AEA at the turning point in its transformation. At the outset, he set out his vision for the new company in terms of key strategic goals. The degree to which these goals were achieved, with a remarkable turnaround in the company's performance and the establishment of the base for the planned privatisation of its AGR and PWR stations, was perhaps the crowning achievement of Collier's career. Especially noteworthy was the completion of the Sizewell B power station, the first pressurised water reactor in Britain. The special satisfaction with which Collier saw the station's successful entry into service this year was reflected in his delivery, only a few weeks ago, of the Hinton Lecture, to the Royal Academy of Engineers.
Like a number of great engineers, including his illustrious predecessor at UKAEA and the Central Electricity Generating Board Christopher Hinton, Collier started his career at the bottom, leaving school at the age of 16 to join the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell as a student apprentice in 1951. This provided the gateway to a scholarship at University College London where he graduated with a First Class degree in chemical engineering. His practical training in the Harwell Apprentice School provided him with a sound grounding in applied engineering and an instinctive feel for the shop floor that stood him in good stead throughout his career. He retained a great affection for the apprentice school and a strong interest in the development and training of young people. One of his many strengths was his ability to communicate his enthusiasm for engineering at all levels. It was particularly appropriate that he was chosen, during the last year, to play a key role in Michael Heseltine's initiative on Action for Engineering by chairing a task force on communicating more effectively the importance of technology.
On leaving university in 1957, Collier returned to a Harwell which, under John Cockcroft's leadership, had developed into one of the world's great research laboratories. It was in this high-powered environment that Collier embarked on his research into heat transfer and fluid flow. Although pioneering in nature, his work had a strong practical engineering theme in laying the foundations for improved design and operation of boilers in nuclear power stations. This practical thrust was maintained through his periods in the 1960s with Atomic Energy of Canada (AECL) and with the Atomic Power Construction in Britain. On returning to Harwell, he brought his research to its culmination with his book Convective Boiling and Condensation (1972), which has remained a standard reference to this day, used by students and practising engineers world-wide.
In the 1970s and into the 1980s, Collier's career took on a wider dimension as he was given more demanding and wide-ranging management tasks with the UKAEA. He developed a broader expertise in the technology and safety of light-water reactors, and also got increasingly involved with policy issues of international importance. Working with Walter Marshall, first at UKAEA and then at CEGB, Collier played an important part in the decision to switch the UK's nuclear programme to PWRs (and was saddened that only one has been built so far). This set the basis for the subsequent leading roles he played with UKAEA and Nuclear Electric.
His achievements were recognised by his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society, in 1990. Most recently, he was acclaimed by his fellow chemical engineers through his election as President of the Institute of Chemical Engineers.
John Collier was a big man both in physical presence and personality. Although he was a man of clear conviction, he sought to persuade rather than dominate others. At meetings, his warmth and sense of humility, together with his determination to get to the bottom of issues, encouraged others to express their views openly. He had the intellectual grasp and vision to reach clear conclusions which he then acted on decisively, even when that involved ruffling feathers.
Although essentially a private and serious man, John Collier enjoyed life immensely and had a tremendous sense of humour. Even when the going was tough, he thought that work should be fun. He had a great love of music and painting and a particular passion for Turner; he was particularly pleased by the proposition that the Tate Gallery should acquire Bankside Power Station, a Nuclear Electric inheritance from the former CEGB. His greatest sporting love was cricket and as a young man at Harwell he was an enthusiastic fast bowler; it must have been an awesome sight.
If there has been a sea-change in the attitude of the broad Left in Britain towards civil nuclear power - and there has - it can be ascribed to two centres of origin: to the organisation Trade Unions for Safe Nuclear Energy, chaired by Bill Morgan of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, and to John Collier, writes Tam Dalyell.
From the time he became chairman of the UKAEA in 1987, Collier went to infinite pains to explain what the UKAEA and, later, Nuclear Electric, were trying to do, to sceptical and worried MPs. As a believer in civil nuclear power, I marvelled at his skill and patience in handling over many a lunch my more nervous and doubting parliamentary colleagues. He was memorable for his clarity of exposition, which was in the Lord Penney class, and for his cheerful, if not always too exact, use of cricketing terms such as "googly", "chinaman" and "lbw" to describe problems of complex engineering or atomic physics. Possibly his favourite riposte to MPs asking slightly truculent know-all questions was "You might think that you have bowled a fast yorker on the leg stump, but it is playable."
In his youth Collier had been a strapping, demon, if less than accurate, pace bowler, according to a friend of mine who faced him.
Possibly his most important long-term achievement in the great scheme of matters nuclear was quiet and behind the scenes. It was Collier who at senior level at any rate first identified the colossal potential threat to the cause of nuclear power in the world if potentially unstable power stations in eastern Europe, such as Kozloduy, in Bulgaria, or Smolensk, in the Soviet Union, were to suffer accident rather than incident.
"Another Chernobyl," he sighed anxiously, "might shut Sizewell. We'd better face up to that." Therefore he instigated and backed with sustained zeal Western efforts to provide expert personnel and expertise to help. In the West's own self- interest he argued we ought to spend more money in doing what we could to ensure safety in EasternEurope.
John Gordon Collier, chemical engineer: born London 22 January 1935; Head, Engineering Sciences Group, United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, Harwell 1970-75, Head, Chemical Engineering Division 1975-77, Member, Atomic Energy Technical Unit 1979-81, Director of Technical Studies 1981- 82, Deputy Chairman 1986-87, Chairman 1987-90; Director General, Generation Development and construction Division, CEGB Barnwood 1983-86; Chairman, Nuclear Electric 1990-95; FRS 1990; married 1956 Ellen Mitchell (one son, one daughter); died 18 November 1995.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies