Speaker notes for a talk given at the Reform Club, London, on 21 June 2023.
Thank you, Lucy. And, good evening everyone.
For the avoidance of any doubt, let me affirm at the outset that I am PRO-NUCLEAR.
Society today demands more and more energy. We want to be warm in Winter; we want to be cooled in Summer. We expect the lights to come on every time we use the switch. We use more and more electrically powered technology. Manufacturing and food production increasingly uses generated energy in place of human brawn.
At the same time, because of concerns about climate change, we are being urged to save energy. “Save the planet” is the cry. “Cut down on your energy consumption.”
Well, I don’t believe this approach can work.
Most people are not going to deny themselves the comfort and convenience of readily accessible energy in the interests of mankind as a whole. A few will. Some countries might even impose restrictions on their citizens. But most will not.
This last Winter, when the wind didn’t blow, our own Government ignored its own commitments on CO₂ emissions and called up some old coal-burning power plants, rather than risk having the lights go out.
Germany, which has now closed its last remaining nuclear plants, conveniently after the end of Winter, is keeping a fleet of coal burners on hand (using dirty lignite) to ensure their lights will not go out, especially now when they haven’t their access to Russian gas.
The answer really is to ensure that people have access to a plentiful supply of energy that is affordable, safe, secure, and reliable and which does not contribute to our carbon emissions. THEN there will be no need to feel guilty about not denying ourselves the benefits of energy; no need to artificially throttle our economy. And no need to cheat on any environmental commitments.
The only energy source that meets all of these requirements is electricity generated from nuclear energy. And there is plenty of well developed technology available, tried and tested around the world.
Now let me examine these aspects a little more closely.
Nuclear projects tend to be big and we are not very good, it seems, at successfully managing big projects, whether it is bridges, tunnels, railways or sadly big power stations. That is why, almost the world over, these big projects are state funded. In this country however, the Government seems afraid to take on the investment in nuclear power plants and prefers to leave it foreign governments, such as the French, or until recently, the Chinese. Hardly the best way to secure energy independence.
Properly managed, nuclear power plants can be built efficiently and can produce electricity at competitive costs. What’s more, once built and commissioned and with the majority of their lifetime costs and the project and political risks all behind them, the cost of power from them for many decades is largely fixed. I argue that it is then when these plants should be sold to the private sector; what an investment opportunity for pension funds! 60 or 80 years of almost guaranteed income.
An alternative approach is to go for reactors that are small and can be factory built for rapid installation, even in the heart of local areas of high demand (so-called SMRs). Much of the basic technology was developed here in the UK 60 years ago before we decided to go for the large gas cooled systems that we built.
Now SMR models are already in operation in China, in Japan and being started in the US. Bill Gates seems itching to invest. Rolls-Royce are ready to go with their version and other UK companies are waiting of the Government to give the go-ahead. There is even a model specifically designed for installation in (admittedly large) ships (they can no longer rely on wind!).
Every source of energy has its hazards but the record shows that nuclear is actually just about the safest of all. Ask the workers at Sellafield if they would rather have followed their fathers into the coal mines than work in the nuclear industry.
Now, I know there have been some spectacular accidents, worst of all at the Chernobyl plant in the Ukraine. This was an absolutely mind-blowing sequence of stupid actions.
The reactor design itself had an inherent fault which meant, in the wrong circumstances, it was prone to go into a runaway burst of energy. Special measures were installed to counter this but, in order to carry out an unusual experiment, the operators actually inhibited those measures and the reactor dramatically overheated and caught fire. A UN report subsequently determined that just under 50 people died as a result. But the consequences were felt worldwide. It was no good us saying that we wouldn’t have done this. The damage to the concept of nuclear energy was immense and worldwide. The anti-nukes had a field day, not realising that the resultant worldwide increase in carbon burning would add greatly to greenhouse emissions. One good thing to come out of this accident was the setting up of WANO (the World Association of Nuclear Operators). Everyone who owns a nuclear reactor belongs to it and submits themselves to mutual inspections to ensure that high standards of design and operation are maintained throughout the world. If you want me to say more about WANO or Chernobyl, please feel free to ask in question time later.
ALT - LONGER VERSION
The design of the reactor was one that we, in the west, would never have built. It had a characteristic called “positive void coefficient”. A bubble forming in the coolant/moderator would actually increase the activity of the reactor, making it hotter, leading to more bubbles, increasing the activity, making it hotter… you get the picture. Nevertheless, a series of these reactors were built by the former Soviet Union, with special arrangements to mange this positive void coefficient problem. In April 1986, the operators at Chernobyl decided to try an experiment, running the reactor at as low a power as possible while still using the power to run its own pumps etc. To facilitate the experiment, the operators had to by-pass the automatic safety protection systems designed to prevent the situation that then unfolded.
I likened it, at the time, to trying to see how slowly you could fly an aeroplane.
Eventually, the plane will crash. And, sure enough, the positive void kicked in and the power in the reactor surged, blowing off the top cover and setting the core on fire. Despite strong suspicions, the Soviets denied any thing had happened for days until first some observers in Sweden detected radioactivity in the atmosphere. Eventually that activity arrived over the UK. (Friday, May 1st)
The other event popular with the media was on a far more modest scale in that no one died from any radiation released. I am talking about Fukushima Daichi. No. 1 of four reactors on the one site.
Some facts. A massive earthquake (9.2 on the Richter scale) caused immense devastation to the city of Fukushima. Many died and most buildings were destroyed. But the nearby nuclear power station remained intact and shut down safely. External power sources to the plant failed because the pylons were all down but the standby generators kicked in and all seemed well. Half an hour later the tsunami arrived. More devastation to the city and its death toll rose. We later learned, to 23,000.
The power station designers had foreseen this possibility and had surrounded the station with a bund wall 8 metres high, enough to meet any recorded tsunami. Unfortunately, this tsunami was 15 metres high. It overwhelmed the protective wall and flooded No 1 reactor’s basement, WHICH UNFORTUNATELY IS WHERE THE STANDBY GENERATORS WERE! The two workers who were in the basement were sadly drowned; they were the only casualties on the site. No one died from radiation.
But now there was no power onsite to drive the reactor coolant pumps. What coolant was in the reactor core soon boiled off. The steam reacted with the exposed core and created hydrogen which soon reached explosive concentration and went bang, blowing off the building cladding. This was despite the site director pleading with head office in Tokyo for permission to vent the building. We could discuss here the process of decision making in Japan, but it would take a while. This issue came round again when the site director, desperate to get some water on to the reactor core, took matters into his own hands. He collected all the car batteries from the staff carpark and his staff engineered sufficient power from them to operate some pumps. Without waiting for Tokyo’s approval he then quenched the fire with sea water, the only water to hand. You have to remember that these workers at the power plant had now been trying to control the situation for over two days, not knowing what had happened to their families at home in the city.
Tokyo’s reaction to the Director’s unauthorised action was to fire him (albeit from a distance!). At which point, his workforce said, “If he goes, we go!” From that moment onwards, the top management of Tokyo Electric were completely neutered.
Incredibly, we then had senior politicians, including the PM, trying to make technical judgements with no expertise or knowledge. This is why we got ludicrous decisions to unnecessarily evacuate the area.
SECURE and RELIABLE
Once commissioned, modern nuclear power plants can run, almost continuously, for 60 or even 80 years. Some require annual refuelling but some can be configured to last their whole life without refuelling. The uranium required for their fuel can all be purchased at the outset, from friendly countries and sufficient stocks put aside for the reactor’s whole life.
There has been a view, here in London at least, that energy is simply a commodity; there is plenty of it in the world so you buy it as you need it and let the market work. Well we may like to think that way but not everyone does. There are those quite prepared to use energy as a weapon as Russia (and others) have shown. If we want to protect ourselves from such games we have to ensure that our energy supplies are under our control.
Then some sources of energy are weather dependent. Wind power is the obvious case in point. Even coal used to sometimes freeze in the trucks causing enormous problems in the past.
With nuclear power, we are no longer vulnerable to the vagaries of UK weather or any impact from international politics and global commercial turmoil.
CARBON EMISSIONS/CLIMATE CHANGE
And nuclear energy release virtually no CO₂, even less per unit of electricity than wind energy (when you include emissions created during construction).
Now the earth’s climate has always been on the change. Its temperature has historically oscillated with several frequencies. That we are currently seeing rising temperatures is no longer a matter of contention. What is still debated is just how much mankind is contributing with his burning of carbon. What is certain is that every ton of CO₂ we put into the atmosphere will add just that little bit to the world’s temperature. Received wisdom is that we must stop doing this.
By converting our energy usage to electricity and maximising the proportion of that electricity produced by nuclear power stations we can go a long way to doing this and thus minimise our impact. Then if, for example, we need to increase our usage of air conditioners, we can do so with a clear conscience.
Actually, for us here in the UK, it may not work out as expected. There is historical evidence that shows whenever the earth’s temperature near its maximum, NW Europe is plunged into its own mini-iceage. Remember that we are nearer to the North pole than, say, Quebec in Canada or Sapporo in Japan. We know what they look like in winter! AND we know it is only the Gulf Stream that keeps us warm in Winter. But that could soon change.
Historically, every Winter a huge finger of ice used to form in the North Atlantic just south of Greenland. The theory is that as the water freezes out, the residual heavier brine sinks. The effect is like a huge pump driving the Gulf Stream. For the last 40 years, that ice has not formed. The pump has been switched off.
Interestingly, last year a team of Danish workers reported that they had detected a weakening of the Gulf Stream without referring to the absence of the ice finger. And a few weeks ago, NASA published a chart showing how the world’s oceans had warmed over the past 20 years. Although they made no reference to it, the one area on their maps that showed a cooling of the surface water was… in the NE Atlantic.
Could we be on the verge of seeing the Gulf Stream fail?!
It may be that with our local ice age, the resultant snow/ice fields, reflecting more of the sun’s energy back into space, trigger a reversal of global warming. That eminent environmentalist, James Lovelock, with his Gaia theory, predicted that the earth has its own ways of reversing deviations from its norm.
Maybe, we are now witnessing just such a process.
If we do suffer a local mini-iceage, won’t we be glad we invested in a fleet of nuclear power stations?
You may like to tease your favourite politicians with the idea that this could all happen very quickly, perhaps even on their watch! You can then pacify them with the news that this cold period normally only lasts about a thousand years!
Well that brings us to politics. It is important to remember what drives politicians. In its 1986 annual conference, the Labour Party voted to shut down the nuclear industry the day after the 1987 General Election, which they were certain they would win. They were driven by disgruntled miners who blamed the nuclear industry for keeping the lights on and thus sabotaging their pro-coal campaign. In the run up to the election, the local candidates asked permission to campaign at BNFL’s sites. I would not let them hold mass meetings but thought it was reasonable to let them meet our union reps, provided they also met senior management. At our head office, I, with some senior staff, met the local Warrington candidates, who were led by Stan Orme, the Shadow Energy Secretary. Stan outlined their energy strategy which, of course was hostile to us. In turn, I pointed out just how much of UK electricity was generated by nuclear. One of the candidates then gently asked Stan, “What will we say to the electorate if the lights go out next Winter because we’ve switched off the nuclear stations?” Without a pause, Orme turned to me and asked, “Which is the smallest of the nuclear stations?” “Berkeley”, I replied. “OK”, he said. “We’ll shut that one down and forget about the rest”. My triumph at saving the nuclear programme, of course, was never recognised since Labour lost the 1987 election.
One of our problems has always been having to fight ignorance and even pride at not understanding. I had a Chairman who boasted that he had never had a science lesson in his life and, at the time, this was seen as a necessary qualification for the job. There was once a huge story about a find of radioactively contaminated seaweed on the Seascale beach. The press did not refer to dirty pieces of seaweed but an invasion of radioactive hydroids. An angry Minister summoned me to explain. I asked for the most contaminated piece of seaweed we could find and took it with me in a little plastic bag to the meeting. At the appropriate time, I produced my little bag of seaweed to show how innocuous it was. This little piece of seaweed was as radioactive as a single brazil nut. But, despite my assurances (and I was a qualified health physicist), I could not induce him, or any of his officials, to touch the packet. But, at least he gave up trying to chastise us. One of our great blessings but also one of our greatest problems is that radioactivity is everywhere and can be detected at the minutest levels.
I suspect that the hostility towards nuclear from many officials and politicians, stems from their lack of understanding and fear of stories of incidents which they cannot handle. It is then very tempting to try to avoid anything nuclear. Their largely successful attempts to close down the British nuclear industry over the past few decades has left this country very vulnerable. And, undoubtedly, has led to higher emissions of CO₂. It has also rendered the UK less influential in international forums, where we used to have a very stabilising influence.
I mentioned James Lovelock earlier. He was a prominent environmentalist who began to recognise that nuclear energy was the only way we would successfully wean ourselves off carbon burning. He has since been joined by many others. I recall that once, even the Chairman of Greenpeace UK confided with me that many of his members were questioning the organisation as to the wisdom of opposing nuclear for exactly these reasons. A prominent member of Extinction Rebellion was recently expelled from the group because she became pro-nuclear!
The tide is undoubtedly turning in favour of nuclear. I recently asked a young environmentalist why young people seemed to be so anti-nuclear “We are not anti-nuclear”, she replied. “And we are fed up of being expected to be!”
The Green Party is another case altogether. It was once explained to me by someone quite senior in the Green movement, that whatever the merits of nuclear energy, they would never embrace it as they could not accept the industrial society that was necessary to nurture it.
Comparators such as my brazil nut, were not of interest to the media. But our industry didn’t help itself. We called the boxes in which spent fuel was put, “COFFINS”! And we didn’t endear ourselves to our American friends when, to remove the unfortunate analogy, we changed the name to “CASKS”.
The early link to weapons was forever thrown in our faces. On holiday on a small cruise ship, Joy and I encountered Esther Rantzen. Someone must have told her that I worked in the nuclear industry. “Is this true”, asked Esther. I confirmed it. To which she demanded, horror in her voice, “DO YOU MAKE BOMBS?!” I spent some time explaining how the nuclear materials used in the civil programme is of no use to bomb makers. But it is difficult to shake off the association.
In the early eighties, BNFL was well aware of the criticisms of its discharges from Sellafield into the Irish Sea. A hundred million pounds was spent building a new treatment plant. When commissioned this plant cut emissions by over 90%. So pleased with themselves at this achievement, the Company published adverts showing this reduction graphically. The reaction of the media, however, was, not to applaud the reduction, but to be horrified at the earlier excesses.
In its dealings with the media, the nuclear industry has always felt the need to spend its time addressing the criticisms rather than pointing out the benefits of nuclear energy.
British Gas did not spend time boasting how many fewer houses it blew up last year but rather emphasised the convenience of gas as a fuel.
British Coal didn’t boast about how many fewer miners died last year in its pits, but rather talked of all the jobs they created.
I was very much impressed with our media consultants’ concept that our account with the media should be seen like a bank account; build up credit when times are good, then you have something to draw on when things go wrong. Certainly in the late 1980s it seemed we were trying to draw on an account which we had never really opened. A dripping tap in the canteen at Sellafield might well be reported in the press as another leak at Sellafield. It was said that reporters waited at the factory gates with £50 for anyone emerging with a printable story, however fanciful.
Each year after our Annual Accounts were published, BNFL held a press conference here in London. During the usual bun fight that followed, I engaged with the Guardian’s reporter and invited him to visit Sellafield for a personal tour. “I’ve made up my mind about Sellafield”, he said. “I don’t need to see it”.
“Ye Gods”, as my late friend Bernard Ingham might have exclaimed.
On that note, I had better let you get back to your dinner.
BUT REMEMBER –
CLEAN (ZERO CARBON)
We must stop dithering and get on with it!
Thank you for listening to me.