Comparing nuclear power in France and England

Materials World magazine
1 Nov 2008

My reaction on hearing that the state-owned French electricity company EDF had purchased UK nuclear company British Energy (BE) was a mixture of pleasure and pain. The former arose because I believe that nuclear power is an essential weapon against global warming and it is eminently sensible for us to forge a link with EDF, the world’s largest nuclear company. I welcome the news that EDF plans to construct four large (1.6GWe) reactors shared equally between the existing BE sites at Hinkley Point and Sizewell.

Where then is the pain? It arises from a sadness that we have fallen so far behind our neighbour France in the scale and enterprise of our nuclear industry. EDF has a staff of 158,000 with 58 reactors at 19 sites, whereas BE has 8,000 employees with 15 reactors at eight sites. Moreover, almost half of BE’s reactors are either subject to long shutdowns for repairs or are operating at reduced power. In truth, EDF are more interested in acquiring the sites than the reactors themselves.


The UK proceeds with Advanced Gas Cooled Reactors


How has this imbalance with France come about, bearing in mind that in the immediate post-war years the UK was a pioneer in the peaceful applications of nuclear power, and for a brief period generated more nuclear electricity than the rest of the ‘free’ world combined? Our pivotal error occurred in 1965 when, based on limited operational experience of a small windscale prototype, the UK selected the Advanced Gas Cooled Reactor (AGR) to be constructed at Dungeness (known as Dungeness B). This became the first reactor of a series of AGRs constituting the second phase of the UK nuclear reactor programme. This was a disaster – it took 25 years for Dungeness B to become fully operational – thus spelling the end of hopes of export orders and ambitions to become a leading nuclear nation.

Selection of nuclear power systems

The French, like the British, started their nuclear power programme with gas-cooled reactors, a Hobson’s choice in the absence of largescale facilities to enrich nuclear fuel. However, they soon acquired experience of water-cooled reactor technology from their nuclear submarine programme and association with the Belgians in the construction of a 240MW Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR). They also recognised that light water reactors were becoming common around the world and that there would be a huge benefit arising from other countries’ operating experience.

The PWR became the preferred choice for the second stage of development. This bore rich fruits – almost 80% of France’s electrical power is nuclear-generated and it is an appreciable exporter of nuclear electricity to its neighbours, including Britain. Currently, UK electricity costs are up to four times those in France.

The Thatcher Government, which came into power in May 1979, was broadly in favour of the PWR, and indeed one reactor (Sizewell B), after an over-long inquiry, was approved in June 1987 and became operational in February 1995. However, plans for further PWRs were abandoned and huge damage was done to our nuclear prospects by the manner in which the administrations privatised the Central Electricity Generating Board. They isolated the nuclear component from the more profitable conventional generation.

Among the casualties were world-class laboratories at Berkeley, Marchwood and Leatherhead, and with similar cuts in UK atomic energy R&D, our country is poorly placed to respond to the challenges of the nuclear power renaissance, which is apparently about to start. One recalls industrialist Sir William Lithgow’s recent remark, ‘Technological illiteracy is the hallmark of the British administrative class’.

Further information

EDF Energy

'Bureaucracy spawns chaotic energy policy', by Sir William Lithgow, The Times, 8 October 2008