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Britain’s nuclear future: Royal Society vs. Chris Huhne?

“We needed several good workaday Marks and Spencer suits. Instead, every reactor was bespoke from Savile Row.” – Chris Huhne

Yesterday the Royal Society held a meeting to discuss its new report on the future of nuclear power here in Britain. It all seemed to be going swimmingly until Chris Huhne, the government’s environment secretary, delivered an unorthodox speech that in part blamed researchers for the nation’s current nuclear woes.

The day began when Roger Cashmore, the report’s chairman, delivered a few words about Britain’s diminishing role in nuclear power. Britain, he noted, was the first nation to field a commercial power plant, but today, its nuclear research is withering as other nations such as France take the lead. The government needs a clear view on the future of nuclear R&D, he told the crowd.

The panel envisioned the UK reaching out to the international community by organising workshops on nuclear safeguards technologies and participating in multilateral programmes to develop advanced reactors, such as generation four fast reactors. Cashmore also advocated the construction of a new Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant that would recycle the nation’s sizeable plutonium stockpile for use in commercial reactors. Taken together, these actions would transform the UK into a “global R&D hub” for nuclear research.

It was the sort of line you’d expect from the Royal Society, and it was met by the sort of reception you’re used to if you’ve been to this sort of thing before. A few environmentalists stood up to complain about Britain’s failure to give up its nuclear arms; I stood up and asked the usual “how do you intend pay for this?” question that journalists always ask. Cashmore demurred, as report-writers always do.

James Wilsdon, who heads public policy at the Royal Society, announced that the environment secretary would be giving his speech after the coffee-break. The speech had been written largely by Huhne himself. “So whatever he says after the coffee break, you can be sure his fingerprints are all over it!” Wilsdon told the audience, in reference to a deleted tweet that apparently got the secretary in trouble last week.

It turned out that Wilsdon wasn’t kidding. When Huhne took the podium, he delivered what has to be one of the most unflinching speeches I’ve ever heard from a senior politician.

“Nuclear policy is a runner to be the most expensive failure of post-war British policy-making, and I am aware that this is a crowded and highly-contested field,” he said.

Huhne was also pretty clear about what he thought the problem was. The UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), run by scientists and engineers, had promoted their own interests over that of the nation: “Gardeners like gardening, researchers want more research, and the UKAEA wanted more nuclear energy using their own designs,” he said.

As a result, the UK ended up with a bunch of fiddly, over-engineered reactors that have been difficult to operate and will cost tens of billions of pounds to clean up. “Never again,” Huhne said. Instead, private companies will use off-the-shelf technology that will be easier to maintain and to clean up. And, most importantly, not a penny of public money will go towards commercial nuclear power.

The speech was perhaps not surprising, given the Liberal-Democrat’s pre-coallition opposition to nuclear power. But in my eyes this off-the-rack vision was also quite at odds with Roger Cashmore’s vision for the future — a vision where researchers once again led Britain on a nuclear renaissance.

What does the disconnect show? First, that researchers will have some work to do in convincing Mr. Huhne to stump up the cash for a new reprocessing plant and other projects. More importantly, it shows that Britain’s vision for its own nuclear renaissance is still very much in flux. It will be interesting to see how the new report helps to shape that debate.


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