Follow the French

With the world of international finance in turmoil, thank goodness at least one big business deal managed to get done last week. The credit crunch might be hurting us now, but without the purchase of British Energy by French power giant EDF, the UK’s next-generation nuclear strategy could have faced a shredding of its own.

The fact that so much hinged on the involvement of the French company offers some important lessons for us here in the UK. Some of them are uncomfortable lessons, but learning them could lead the way to a brighter future for our technology economy.

The French are reaping the rewards for their decision to place nuclear generation and its associated technologies at the heart of national policy in the 1970s. Back then, a soaring oil price was threatening to destabilise the global economy and sending shivers down the spines of nations that realised their energy supplies were at the mercy of a small number of producers. Sound familiar? Déja vu indeed.

The French response was to look for the generation technology that would offer them maximum independence of supply and control over cost. Nuclear fitted the bill perfectly and its government embarked on the huge development programme that, three decades later, made EDF the natural choice for a nation similarly spooked by energy anxieties and looking for an experienced hand to hold as it faces its nuclear future.

The UK is that quivering partner. In the 1970s North Sea oil and gas was beginning to flow, we were a bona fide producer just like the guys in the Middle East and it felt like the good times would last for ever. Meanwhile, our own nuclear energy programme turned into a stop-start affair, a mish-mash of technical variants and short-term thinking.

That is why we now need the French to help us, and why a French business – and its ultimate owner the French state – will be the commercial lynchpin of the UK’s nuclear energy sector.

Let’s learn the lessons and not let history repeat itself. What are the rich technological seams we can mine that will leave us in the same position as the French nuclear industry in three or four decades? Nano-medicine? Carbon capture and storage? Fuel cell vehicles? Advanced materials?

The benefits of a concerted national emphasis on priority areas with potentially global significance are obvious. That is why organisations such as the Technology Strategy Board, set up to co-ordinate and focus the UK’s efforts in innovation, are so important. If they succeed, we might one day hear the words ‘this is the big one. Only the British can help us with this’.

Andrew Lee, editor