October 23, 2017

A State within a State

We have devoted this issue of The Ecologist to a detailed analysis of the economic case for and against nuclear power. We ourselves do not regard economics as the most important aspect of the nuclear controversy. Like most responsible people, we oppose nuclear power for incomparably more important reasons—believing, as we do, that the proliferation of nuclear installations represents a serious long-term threat to life on this planet by dint of the radioactive pollution they inevitably generate. Whether or not it is actually ‘economic’ to threaten life on earth this way seems to us a consideration so paltry as to preoccupy only the pettiest and meanest of minds.

Nonetheless, we recognise that there are many—both within Government and without—for whom the economic arguments in the nuclear debate are the most important. For them, the only question worth asking is: “Does nuclear power generate the cheapest electricity?” It is that question which the Committee for Study of Economics of Nuclear Electricity (CSENE), whose report we publish, has attempted to answer. The Committee was set up in June 1981 under the chairmanship of Sir Kelvin Spencer, Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Power at the time when the decision was taken to commit Britian to a civilian nuclear power programme. In analysing the economic case for nuclear power, the Committee has primarily used the Central Electricity Generating Board’s own published figures. The Committee concludes that to go ahead with the present Government’s plan to build two more Advanced Gas Reactors (AGRs) and then one further large nuclear reactor every year for ten years would be sheer economic lunacy.

Undoubtedly, many of our readers will ask: Why, if nuclear power is so uneconomic, do electricity generating companies the world over insist on building more nuclear reactors? Why, too, has the claim that nuclear electricity is the cheapest gone unchallenged for so long? And how come the electricity boards of Britain and France are so blind to the implications of the figures they themselves publish?

In part the answers lie in the strong tendency of large institutions to become ‘States within States’, preoccupied with self-preservation, the expansion of their interests and the self-aggrandisement of their leaders. That point has been well made by Duncan Burn, the foremost historian of Britain’s nuclear industry, in his book Nuclear Power and the Energy Crisis. “Authorities and boards”, he says, “become vested interests, eager for more power, for larger staffs and large empires, anxious to conceal or explain away what has gone wrong.” In effect, they become cocooned from any reality other than their own self-perpetuation.

Whether Britain is more susceptible than other countries to this ‘institutional isolationism’ is debatable. However, it is worth bearing in mind Professor David Henderson’s observation that Britain’s ‘administrative culture’ by emphasising “secrecy, anonymity and bureaucratic tidiness rather than accuracy and individual judgement” has made British institutions “especially liable to errors of the Concord and AGR kinds”.

Be that as it may, what is certain is that once a decision has been made it is difficult for any institutions to go back on it without losing face. It is equally difficult for those involved in making a decision not to develop a psychological stake in seeing it implemented. Ally that reluctance to reconsider decisions or to tolerate criticism with the incredible power enjoyed by the majority of large institutions and one has a perfect recipe for dangerously wrong-headed thinking.

The power enjoyed by the nuclear industry is legion. Thus, Tony Benn (when Secretary of State for Energy) publically stated that in all his political life he had never encountered “such a well organised scientific, industrial and technical lobby as the nuclear power lobby.” In France, the political influence of the nuclear industry is still greater: in the last twenty-five years, at least five Government ministers (Felix Gaillard, Pierre Guillaumat, Olivier Guichard, Robert Galley and Andre Giraud) have been recruited from the top ranks of the nuclear industry, subsequently playing a decisive role in pushing (for) the implementation of France’s massive nuclear power programme. The three top civil servants who presided over much of that programme enjoy such power that they have been described as ‘veritable tsars’.

Although the British nuclear industry has not penetrated government circles to the same extent as its counterpart in France, the influence it wields in Whitehall is still considerable. In his evidence to the 1967 Select Committee on Science and Technology for instance Tony Benn (then Minister of Technology) testified that the Atomic Energy Authority was not only the principal source of his advice on nuclear matters but also—and perhaps more important—he saw no reason to question the advice it gave. “I regard Sir William Penney as my principal advisor on atomic energy matters” said Benn, “and it is not thought necessary, right or proper or possible for us to have within our own Ministry a complete organisation for the duplication or review and evaluation of the advice given to me by the Authority.”

That situation would seem to persist even today. Certainly those government ministers at the Department of Energy with whom The Ecologist has had direct contact—notably David Howell and Norman Lamont, both highly intelligent men—are strongly pro-nuclear, regurgitating uncritically the propaganda of the Atomic Energy Authority. Indeed, the Department’s support of nuclear power would appear so single-minded that is seems unwilling even to consider the possibility that other forms might be more cost effective than nuclear power—an attitude for which the Department was roundly criticised by the 1980 Select Committee on Energy. “We were dismayed to find that, seven years after the first major oil price increases”, said the Committee, “the DOE has no clear idea of whether investing around £1,300 million in a single nuclear plant . . . is as cost effective as spending a similar sum to promote energy conservation.”

The allocation of funds for energy research and development reflects the pro-nuclear bias of successive governments. Thus between 1962 and 1979, Britain spent more than £500 million in research and development on the fast reactor, a technology which is proving itself to be the greatest white elephant in industrial history. By contrast, when the National Coal Board requested a mere £20 million for further development of a pressurised fluidised bed combustion plant—a British invention which would have eliminated many of the pollution problems associated with coal burning (in particular sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions)—the government flatly refused to advance the money. Now that other countries have taken the lead in developing this technology, the British government is expressing mild interest in its development.

Astonishing as it may seem, very few of the major decisions associated with Britain’s nuclear programme have actually been taken for economic reasons. To be sure, economic arguments have been used to rationalise decisions but, by and large, those decisions have been determined by political expediency, considerations of national prestige and, in particular, out-and-out empire building. In this, the Atomic Energy Authority has undoubtedly been the greatest culprit. Holding the monopoly of nuclear research and development in Britain, the Authority has exerted enormous pressure on the CEGB to build reactors of AEA design—this despite protestations from the CEGB that economic interests would be better served by opting for foreign reactors.

When the first Magnox reactors were being built in the early sixties, realists within the CEGB and the AEA saw that they could not compete on economic grounds with fossil-fuel fired plant. Indeed when the reactors came on stream, it became apparent that electricity from them was costing at least 80 per cent more than originally estimated. As a result, the AEA had to come up with a design for a reactor that, on paper at least, would have cheaper generating costs than its Magnox predecessor. That reactor was the Advanced Gas-Cooled Reactor, (AGR).

Already in the United States, a number of ‘commercial’ Boiling Water Reactors (BWR) and Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) were built for utilities. The manufacturers claimed that the electricity from those reactors was going to be very cheap: we now know, however, that those reactors and the ones that followed were all loss leaders. The CEGB was tempted by the figures and inevitably a serious clash broke out between those at the AEA who were pushing their own design and those who favoured adopting a light water reactor. Such was the bitterness that a mediating committee, under the chairmanship of Quentin Hogg, now Lord Hailsham, was called into being, to bring the two sides together. In the event, the AEA won the day and the AGR became the follow-up reactor to the Magnox. A major consideration that undoubtedly influenced that decision was the cancellation of the British designed TSR2 combat aircraft in favour of the American F1-11. The Wilson Government felt that the British public would resent Britain adopting yet another American technology if the AGR were abandoned for the American light water reactor.

Having lost its battle over the AGR, the CEGB performed an astonishing volte-face, producing and Appraisal of the AGR which bore considerable signs of AEA influence. The Appraisal has been described by R.F.W. Guard, later Vice-President of Canatom, as “More lavish in its praise of the AGR than a manufacturer’s sales brochure.” The government too went overboard, Fred Lee, the Labour Minister of Power, pronouncing the AGR to be “the greatest breakthrough of all time . . . We’ve hit the jackpot”, a pronouncement Duncan Burn describes as ranking among the most absurd claims made by a Minister. “The advantage in cost claimed in the Appraisal for the “greatest breakthrough of all times” was 0.01p per KW, trivial and within the statistical margin of error”, says Burn.

“As competent observers pointed out quickly (unnoticed in popular discussion) the comparison involved great hazards and some bias. The design of the 600 MW AGR was extrapolated from a 30 MW prototype which involved much greater uncertainty than was involved in extrapolating from a 200 MW plant for the BWR. Recent design improvements in the BWR accepted by American utilities were rejected as unproven by the CEGB, but more recent radical and untested changes for the AGR were accepted. The Appraisal showed no recognition of the disadvantages of a permanent graphite core, contained inadequate data on fuel cycle costs and assumed that a 600 MW turbo alternator, of which none had been made in Britain, would stop for maintenance only once in two years, contrary to all experience.”

Once construction began on the AGRs all sorts of problems came to light and, as a result, there were longer and longer delays. Nonetheless, Sir William Penney, Chairman of the AEA, assured the Government that the problems associated with the AGR were inevitable and that they would soon ‘melt away’. He also insisted that it would be possible during the next six years to reduce AGR generating costs by 30 per cent in terms of 1965 money. Hindsight shows those assurances to have been without foundation. “The primary source of (the) delays,” notes the 1980 House of Commons Select Committee on Energy,

“was that the construction was started without an appropriate prototype, without a fully detailed design, before major changes in parameters had been researched and developed and before vital engineering and metallurgical problems had been solved.”

In spite of the AGR experience two more AGRs are being built in Britain, one at Torness and the other at Heysham. The public have been assured that they will provide much needed and cheaper electricity.

The Committee for the Study of Nuclear Electricity has looked closely at the CEGB’s figures on generating costs. It finds them grossly deceptive. Indeed, it becomes transparently clear that nuclear power has never provided the cheapest electricity in Britain and is most unlikely ever to do so. That the GECB still maintains the fiction that it will shows a curious capacity for self deceit—a self deceit for which we, the electricity consumers, are having to pay.

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