Escaping technological lock-in by swallowing your pride: French versus British nuclear policy

posted in: Energy | 2

On 21 October 2013 the British government confirmed at last that it had agreed with the French power company EDF (Electricité de France) the building of two European Pressurised Water (EPR) nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point, near Bristol. The 3,200MW reactors will contribute around 7% of the UK’s power needs by 2023. The deal is controversial in a number of ways: it depends on a 35 year power price guarantee by the government to EDF; it also grants the project company a British government guarantee on the debt raised, for a fee; and there are many people who just don’t like nuclear or see it as competing against other low carbon power sources.

One theme picked up by the media, including the BBC’s prestigious Newsnight programme, was the fact that this project would be built and run by an international consortium, led by EDF but with a large minority investment from China. The Daily Telegraph described the deal as “a symbol of the UK’s lost power.” Where, the journalists asked, was the British component? The long, sorry story of the loss of British leadership in civil nuclear power after an early lead in 1956, is told in my book on the causes of the financial crisis at the privatised nuclear company, British Energy. But one particular part of the story is worth re-telling, in light of the apparent humiliation of British engineering and science by our old rival the French. For the French, having started down the same technological path as the UK, for the same reasons, uncharacteristically abandoned their nationalist approach in the late 1960s and bought American nuclear technology. Having licensed US light water reactor know-how (entirely legally I should emphasise), the French emerged a decade later as the leading nuclear nation, now poised to exploit any global nuclear renaissance, a market that the UK is currently almost entirely shut out of. How did this happen?

Background: technological lock-in

All nuclear fission reactors require some choice of fuel (enriched or natural uranium), moderator (the material which slows down the atomic reaction so it can sustainably generate heat) and a coolant (to take the heat away for creating steam to move a turbine to generate electricity). But only certain combinations work. France and the UK were forced to opt for gas cooled, graphite moderated reactors. This was because both proven alternatives were ruled out.

The US had built a water moderated reactor to produce plutonium for the Manhattan Project (which developed the first atomic bombs) at Hanford, in a semi-desert area of Washington State, which British military chiefs at first wanted to copy. But in the late 1940s water moderation was regarded as inherently dangerous. A loss of coolant leading to steam build up might cause an explosion that would spread radioactive materials over a large area. Indeed the head of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves, warned the UK against using water at a meeting in 1946. The only safe location for such a plant in the UK was identified as the far north of Scotland, not because the lives of Scots were less valuable but simply because there were very few people in that remote area. 

Both France and the UK also lacked enriched uranium, which is uranium in which the proportion of fissionable isotope U-235 has been increased from the naturally occurring 0.7% to 5% for modern light water reactors. The rest is U-238, which is not fissionable, though it is somewhat radioactive and very dense, which is why it’s used in conventional weapons (“depleted uranium”).  (Weapons grade uranium is 85-90% enriched.) The US built a half mile long gaseous diffusion plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to enrich uranium, which accounted for a large fraction of the huge cost of the Manhattan Project. In the late 1940s and early 1950s both France and the UK lacked the industrial machinery to enrich uranium, though they both acquired it later for weapons purposes. This further ruled out water-moderated reactors, even when they could be made safe.

The other proven reactor type was the Canadian heavy water reactor. Heavy water contains an isotope of hydrogen called deuterium, which contains a neutron, compared with normal hydrogen which has none (hence two particles instead of one – “deutero” meaning two; there is an isotope called tritium also, which is used in thermonuclear bombs). That makes it suitable for moderating a nuclear fission reaction without absorbing neutrons, which light water would. Canada had a manufacturing facility for heavy water but the Europeans didn’t and it would take several years to build one. The ending of nuclear cooperation between the UK and US blocked any export of heavy water and the French had never had such access in the first place.

So both countries opted for natural uranium fuel and graphite moderators, since both materials were relatively easy to procure. The earliest British reactors were air-cooled, intended only for plutonium production. The first reactor with electricity generation was gas-cooled and opened in 1956 at Calder Hall in the Lake District. The French were forced to follow the same technology, the head of EDF commenting in 1955 that “one cannot do other than follow the line taken by the British.”

So both nations were locked into the gas/graphite/natural uranium route, particularly given the urgency of producing plutonium for atomic weapons, which dominated the goal of producing electricity from nuclear fission.

The French volte faces

So the French followed the British in developing gas cooled reactors, and built several. But it became clear during the 1960s that the US light water reactor technology based on enriched uranium was winning the global export market. The British attributed this in part to aggressive sales techniques, a common complaint against US businesses in those days, and determinedly carried on with new British gas designs, none of which was ever sold abroad and most of which didn’t even get built in the UK.

The French gradually came to regard gas-cooled reactors as a technological cul-de-sac; whatever the intrinsic benefits of each reactor type, the market was voting for water-cooled reactors and France risked being locked out. After the retirement in 1969 of President de Gaulle, a strong proponent of all things French, including the home developed gas reactors, his successor President Pompidou reluctantly switched France to the water cooled approach. The last French gas cooled reactor was opened in 1969 and its operator EDF admitted the same day that it couldn’t compete with oil at the current price.

France set up a new nuclear company, Framatome, which licensed pressurised water reactor (PWR) technology from the American Westinghouse company, which took a 48% stake in Framatome. A first plan in the early 1970s to build 8,000MW was accelerated with world oil prices quadrupled in 1973-74 over the Yom Kippur war between Israel and Arab countries.

Crude oil prices since 1861

Lacking domestic oil supplies and appalled at the prospect of having to grovel to the Arab oil producers, who temporarily embargoed those nations they regarded as supporting Israel, France’s electricity was 65% nuclear by 1985, the highest of any rich economy.

A study of the French nuclear decision (Price,1990) found that the switch to the PWR was not on the grounds of safety, or even decisively better economics, but because water-cooled reactors had become the dominant global technology and Franch must not be excluded from that market. The UK, having more indigenous coal and with a greater set of vested interests in favour of the British gas-cooled reactors, didn’t reach the same decision until the early 1980s, when gas was decisively abandoned in favour of a US PWR design, also by Westinghouse, for the last nuclear reactor to be built in the UK, Sizewell B in Suffolk. The British “advanced” gas cooled reactors never performed very well and were a failure in commercial terms. Britain therefore lost any chance of being a major player in the nuclear reactor industry and most of its very substantial investment in nuclear technology was wasted. 

France buys independence

Framatome bought out Westinghouse’s stake and purchased the right to use the PWR technology independently. After building 40 reactors in France, Framatome, together with the operator EDF, became a leader in nuclear expertise. The EPR (European Pressurised Water Reactor) was developed together with German expertise, Germany also having built a large and efficient fleet of PWRs in the 1970s and 1980s. Framatome was put into the new company Areva, majority owned by the French government, in 2001 and the Areva/EDF team is one of three or four leading contenders in the world nuclear power market.

The EPR, the design chosen for Hinkley Point C and for two more potential stations at Sizewell, has its critics. It is large and expensive and the two other plants under construction in Europe, in Finland and France, are vastly over time and budget. Two EPRs under construction in China, with EDF’s prospective partners in the Hinkley Point project China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN) and the China National Nuclear Corporatio,  are said to be on time and budget, but I’ve been unable to get any firm evidence on why this is the case.

What Hinkley Point C will look like Copyright EDF Energy
What Hinkley Point C will look like Copyright EDF Energy

There are other nuclear technologies that some of my engineering colleagues in Cambridge believe would be cheaper, such as the GE-Hitachi Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR). That reactor, which is already operating in Japan and Taiwan and is licensed for the US, may yet make an appearance in the UK but needs a separate licence from the Office of Nuclear Regulation, which can take several years. For the moment the EPR is the only game in town in the UK.

Why did the French do better?

Back in 1956 it would have been hard to imagine that the French would be ahead of the UK in civil nuclear power and quite shocking to those optimistic nuclear pioneers that the UK had no competing reactor design in the world market. How did the French do so much better than the British?

The brave decision to abandon French technology for American seems uncharacteristic of the French. But the decision was driven by hard-headed realism. The UK, which is so dependent on the US in other areas, notably the military nuclear field, decided to soldier on. This looked like wishful thinking even at the time: there were plenty of critics of the British gas-cooled design who said the UK should go for PWRs.

There is some evidence that the French state is rather better than the British at dealing with technology-based policy. Although there have been mistakes too – both France (Bull) and the UK (ICL) made futile attempts to build national computing companies – France has done better overall. One example is the much better state of the national telecoms carrier before privatisation. France Telecom was widely acknowledged as efficient and innovative, even in the public sector. The French developed the Minitel system, a sophisticated communications system that was ultimately supersed by the internet. By contrast British Telecom was a joke in the UK, with its legendary poor service and hugely delayed implementation of digital systems.

I once interviewed Lord Keith Joseph, an intellectual with enormous influence in the Thatcher governments and himself a cabinet minister in the early 1980s. Highly sceptical of governments’ ability to manage anything commercial and a staunch advocate of privatisation, he nonetheless suggested that the French did these things rather better than the British, as evidenced by the superiority of France Telecom over British Telecom. When I asked why this was, hoping for some insightful political economy explanation, he stared at me for a while and said disarmingly “I don’t know.”

Of course it may be just luck. But I suspect it has something to do with the technical training of the French elite. You generally can’t get to the top in French society unless you are quite good at maths and have continued to study science or engineering past the age of 16. In the UK most MPs and senior civil servant studied arts and humanities subjects. A few did economics, which has the veneer of science, but is no substituate for a proper understanding of technology.

The UK is not entirely without nuclear expertise, mainly owing to its continued submarine capablitity, represented by Rolls-Royce, which might form the nucleus of any future British return to the civil nuclear reactor industry. There are university courses at Manchester, Imperial College and of course Cambridge in nuclear engineering. British nuclear operational expertise is excellent. And the Olympic project suggest that the UK has good project management skills, at least when the budget is very large. But the UK is a long way behind the French. 

Price, T. (1990) Political electricity : what future for nuclear energy? Oxford University Press

2 Responses

  1. taiwinghung

    This is quite an interesting and informative article.

    However, coming from a French Engineering School myself, I have to say that despite a general feeling of pride with French engineering prowess, the French are quite impressed with the Americans’ ability to produce world leading technology and firms such as MS and google. My friends who studied in Japan, mentioned the same thing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.