Britain’s ‘great leap forward’ was start of nuclear power failure

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I am quite sure we have hit the jackpot this time!” With these words Fred Lee, then minister of power, launched Britain’s commercial nuclear energy programme in 1965. Following the agreement last week to build the first of a new generation of nuclear plants in the UK, it is a good moment to recall the events that followed. Britain had not “hit the jackpot”. It was one of the worst commercial decisions ever made.

British scientists had been responsible for stunning technological advances during the second world war. The jet engine, like radar, was a British invention. The first computers were employed at Bletchley Park to break German codes. Antibiotics were created in British laboratories. British scientists played a significant role in the Manhattan project.

But only the pharmaceutical innovations would provide a basis for sustained commercial success. Today, Britain – once a leading airframe manufacturer – makes little for civil aircraft beyond the engines. It is weak in information technology. The new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point on the southwest coast will be French-built and operated, with Chinese financial backing, using American-developed technology.

These British technological failures have been compounded by a political phenomenon I have come to think of as “great leap forward syndrome”. The idea is that the best way to compensate for stumbles and missteps is to move, at one bound, ahead of the field. It is hard to think of any case where this strategy has been successful, and easy to recall the disasters that have followed – from Concorde in the 1960s to the recent failed computerisation of National Health Service records.

The British nuclear industry was initially a source of justifiable national pride. While the US focused on the cold war, its wartime ally devised peaceful applications. In 1956, the young Queen Elizabeth flicked a switch at Calder Hall in the northwest of England to start the first flow of nuclear electricity into a commercial grid. But less than 10 years later, winter power cuts exposed the inadequacies of the electricity network. A Labour government had just been elected and Harold Wilson, the new prime minister, had proclaimed the need to harness the “white heat” of technology. The time was propitious for a great leap forward.

The construction programme that followed dominated business and public investment in the UK for more than a decade. It involved not only the building of seven nuclear power stations but new coal-fired stations of unprecedented scale.

Little of this capacity actually worked in the two decades that followed: not that it mattered because the electricity was not needed anyway. The nuclear programme was the central problem. All seven stations employed an idiosyncratic British design called the advanced gas-cooled reactor. The average time to completion was 20 years, and even then the stations rarely produced at planned capacity. The export potential had excited Lee; it need hardly be said that no foreign order ever materialised.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the scale of the failure was concealed systematically from ministers and the public. The engineers who controlled the electricity industry received knighthoods and peerages. Privatisation of the electricity sector in the late 1980s led to revelations about the scale of wasted resources in the past and clean-up costs in the future. The knights and lords discovered that lying to the stock market entailed greater personal risk than lying to parliament.

The existing nuclear stations were withdrawn from sale. But even with capital costs written down to almost zero, the economics were hopeless. New technologies based on burning gas had lowered the cost of generation, and British Energy, the company created to operate the nuclear plants, collapsed in 2002.

There are many lessons in this disaster: the difficulty of translating scientific progress into commercial reality; the inability of large bureaucracies to tolerate honest feedback; the British collegiality that prefers superficial consensus to honest debate; the political attractions of procrastination – that a problem postponed will be an embarrassment only to someone else. But there has been no inquiry into why the energy policies of the past proved an economic, political and scientific failure. It is easier to repeat history than to learn from it.

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