Educating the public is key to reclaiming our nuclear heritage

Senior reporter

We need a long-term strategy with popular backing if we want to tackle climate change “cheaply” and re-enter high-value nuclear manufacturing.

It probably says something about me that I used a day off from my job at The Engineer earlier this week to visit a nuclear power station. But it’s to my shame that this was also the first time I had ever made such a visit.

It was a fascinating trip and one I would urge anyone with an interest in engineering, infrastructure or the environment to take themselves. Seeing first-hand the scale of the reactor, feeling the heat it generates and studying the intricacies of the technology that controls it reminds you what British engineering is capable of. And learning about the safety systems and culture in place and about how much electricity can be produced from so relatively little fuel certainly makes you re-evaluate the role nuclear power has to play in our energy mix.

I made the visit as a member of the public, not as a journalist, so I won’t give too many details about what I saw. In fact, before I began the tour I was made to sign a contract stating I wouldn’t pass on information to third parties without the agreement of EDF Energy, which operates the UK’s nuclear plants. Which seems rather strange given that the point of allowing public tours of the power station is surely to help spread information.

Presumably it’s a hangover from the last decade, when Britain’s remaining nuclear industry effectively closed its doors and reinitiated a culture of secrecy in response to the perceived terrorist threat following 9/11. There is, of course, a vital need to guard the proprietary and potentially catastrophically dangerous technology contained with nuclear power stations. But my visit also made me realise there’s also a very strong case for doing more to educate the public about nuclear power.

Few people really understand what went wrong during the disasters at Chernobyl or Fukushima, or how other power stations have learnt from those events. My tour guide made several references to how visitors typically imagined a nuclear plant as something similar to the one in The Simpsons, but in reality there are no glowing green rods being handled or contaminated water flows into rivers of three-eyed fish. She also told the story of one visitor from Nigeria who was terrified of receiving a dose of radiation until it was explained she was in greater danger from the cosmic rays in the atmosphere she had been exposed to on the flight over.

Unless the public has a sound knowledge of how nuclear energy is produced, how can they be expected to make sensible decisions about its future use in this country? I grew up just 20 miles from a nuclear power station and yet new nothing of how they operated until I started working at The Engineer. If British industry wants a new nuclear future then it needs to do more – in partnership with government – to educate people about its advantages and safeguards.

There’s another reason for doing this besides our need for new low-carbon sources of energy. Like most in the UK, the nuclear plant I visited was in an area with little other industry and where jobs were scarce. And when those power stations were built they not only needed workers to run them but also created demand for the rest of UK industry. But the decision to end nuclear development in favour of North Sea oil and the subsequent decline of British nuclear manufacturing means that most of the components for the next generation of power stations will be built abroad.

Chancellor George Osborne yesterday said nuclear power could help the UK tackle climate change in ‘as cheap a possible way’. I’m not sure how the price of £92.50/MWh agreed for the first new power station (double the expected market rate and greater than that of onshore wind) is cheap. As long as foreign (often state-owned or backed) companies are the ones building and supplying nuclear power, it’s hard to see how the overall costs to Britain can come down substantially.

However, there is hope that the new-build programme could be a springboard to a nuclear manufacturing renaissance. Hitachi is planning to build a module construction facility here to support its involvement in two new power stations. The Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (NAMRC) in Sheffield is helping firms used to working to the precision standards of aerospace transfer their capabilities to the nuclear sector. Sheffield Forgemasters has just been approved to fabricate safety-critical cast components for the nuclear industry. In Rolls-Royce, we even have a major company that builds nuclear reactors (for submarines) already.

With the right aspiration and conditions, these firms could lead the UK back into a high-value manufacturing sector that couldn’t be easily displaced by cheap foreign factories. This should help bring down the costs of an energy source that it’s becoming increasingly clear will be a vital component of our fight against climate change.

But it requires a long-term commitment to nuclear power with full public backing. Nuclear manufacturing is arguably one of the most difficult industries for a country to break into, requiring a deep knowledge and skills base, unique physical capabilities and a strong supply chain. Having squandered our pioneering first foray into this sector, let’s make sure our second attempt isn’t a false start.