Can Britain make nuclear power work this time around?

As Britain revisits the possibilities of nuclear power, Chris Bowlby looks at the country's earlier, and controversial, attempts to make it work – attempts that failed to live up to expectations

Protesters behind the perimeter fence at
Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station. (Photo by London News Pictures/REX)

This article was first published in the January 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

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The government has approved the building of Britain’s first new nuclear power station “in a generation”. Proposed construction at Hinkley Point in Somerset reverses what appeared to be a long withdrawal from nuclear power, due to a combination of cost, political wariness and public scepticism. So what remains of the mood and assumptions during the first foray into nuclear energy in the early postwar period?

The world’s first industrial-scale civil nuclear reactor, opened by the Queen at Calder Hall in Cumbria in 1956, was closely linked to production of plutonium for British nuclear weapons. The Suez crisis that year also exposed the unpredictability of Middle East oil supplies, making nuclear generation strategically attractive.

Broader social and economic benefits were promised from what was termed the ‘new atomic age’ – including much cheaper electricity. Commentators eagerly repeated a 1954 remark by Lewis Strauss, head of the US Atomic Energy Commission: “It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy… electrical energy too cheap to meter.” Or as Fred Lee, minister of power in 1960s Britain, told the House of Commons: “I’m sure we have hit the jackpot this time!” It was hoped that British nuclear ability would produce lucrative exports too.

Criticism seemed rare. Yet how far did public opinion back the plans? The first point to grasp, says historian Jonathan Hogg of Liverpool University, is that “people were never given a choice”. Calder Hall’s initial construction was bound up with the secrecy of the nuclear weapons programme; there was little parliamentary scrutiny. Such evidence as we have, Dr Hogg points out, suggests “ambiguity” in public views. In a 1948 Gallup poll, approximately 10 per cent more people thought “releasing atomic energy” would result in harm rather than good.

Nine Magnox reactor power stations (now-obsolete facilities designed in Britain) opened between 1962 and 1971. The Wilson Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s linked nuclear power to their vision of technological progress. Tony Benn, who was minister of technology and later secretary of state for energy, was initially a champion of a distinctively British nuclear industry. But he became embroiled in fierce arguments within British government and the nuclear industry about which reactor design was best.

The 1970s also saw the emergence of a more negative nuclear debate. Angst about nuclear waste began to grow. Plans for Britain to treat waste from abroad were greeted by a Daily Mirror headline “Britain to become the nuclear dustbin of the world”.

Accident fears also surfaced. Earlier incidents, including a fire at the Windscale plant in the 1950s, had never been fully publicised. But in 1977 Tony Benn, becoming much more of a nuclear sceptic, began publishing safety inspectors’ assessments of potential risk. International incidents, such as the accident at Three Mile Island in the US in 1979 and the disaster at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union in 1986, heightened anxiety.

But while anti-nuclear sentiment was “common in the UK in the 1980s”, says Jonathan Hogg, it still “doesn’t make a political impact”. The Labour party in the 1980s, led by Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, was left vulnerable by its policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament. As Hogg puts it, “anti-nuclear was perceived to be anti-patriotic”. Conservative governments of the 1980s meanwhile instinctively approved of nuclear power as a counter to the challenge posed by coal miners. However, moves to privatise power generation began to expose the real long term cost of nuclear generation. Older Magnox reactors had to be withdrawn from privatisation plans in 1989 due to the high costs of their decommissioning.

So nuclear power continued in a kind of limbo, neither strongly opposed nor enthusiastically promoted. It never became the main source of energy its pioneers had predicted – the share of UK power generated by nuclear peaked in the mid-1990s at just over 25 per cent.

The contrast with France, which generates a large majority of its energy from nuclear, is striking. Professor Gabrielle Hecht of the University of Michigan has studied how the French state linked its postwar nuclear programme to an idea of “the radiance of France”, with the nuclear programme “recasting French national identity in technological form”. Journalists and scholars praised nuclear reactors which “would function as modern chateaux”, symbols of regional prestige making “a non-nuclear France impossible”.

Back in Britain in 2003 the Blair government published an energy white paper calling nuclear power economically “unattractive”, suggesting that renewable energy and energy efficiency were preferable, and that older nuclear power stations would be phased out and not replaced. Yet Britain struggled to find a convincing plan to replace power generated by nuclear and ‘keep the lights on’. There were constant fears about a future shortage of fossil fuels; gas-powered generation, though given a new lease of life by fracking in the USA, had its own uncertainties.

Coal powered generation, meanwhile, threatened attempts to reduce carbon emissions in response to climate change, and renewables have not plugged the gap. Meanwhile nuclear gained unexpected new friends – some leading Greens, once viscerally anti-nuclear, deciding that nuclear generation was now essential for a low-carbon future.

So while some countries, notably Germany, have become firmly non-nuclear, Britain is now reviving its nuclear ambitions. It will be, however, a far cry from the patriotic vigour of the 1950s. “Much of the UK’s nuclear supply chain has withered away,” noted a recent parliamentary report. Now, much of the expertise and finance will be foreign. China will help finance the new Hinkley station; French company EDF will lead the construction. Whether EDF can make the British love nuclear power as much as the French is open to question.

Of more concern to most in Britain may be the cost of their electricity. Here again, the 1950s seem distant. The government says it hopes new nuclear generation will eventually make power cheaper. But rather than energy generated by Hinkley being “too cheap to meter”, its price has been guaranteed by the government to be well above current market rates to make investment sufficiently attractive.

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Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history.