I sent this letter to the Daily Telegraph, but they have chosen to let the very contentious article by Keith Cochrane remain unchallenged, so I have decided to publish my riposte here instead.
The business comment by Weir Group ceo Keith Cochrane (“We need to move quickly if Britain is to regain its leadership role in the nuclear power industry,” 9 Dec.) is one of the most factually inaccurate and frankly hypocritical articles I have ever read on energy issues, a business sector on which I have researched and written for 35 years.
Firstly, the factual inaccuracy: the article asserts “This country was home to the world’s first commercial nuclear power station at Calder Hall in 1956.” This is untrue in two ways. Calder Hall was not a ‘commercial’ nuclear power plant, but a plutonium production plant run by the UK Atomic Energy Authority for the Ministry of Defence to provide nuclear explosive materials for nuclear warheads.
In fact it was clearly stated at the time of the plant’s opening, in a remarkable little book entitled Calder Hall: The Story of Britain’s First Atomic Power Station, written by Kenneth Jay, and published by the Government’s Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell to mark Calder’s commissioning in October 1956. Mr Jay wrote:
Major plants built for military purposes such as Calder Hall are being used as prototypes for civil plants . . . the plant has been designed as a dual-purpose plant to produce plutonium for military purposes as well as electric power . . . it would be wrong to pretend that the civil programme has not benefitted from, and is not to some extent dependent upon, the military programme."
As a key company in the supply chain, surely Weir Group should have known what they were supplying.
In fact, the first nuclear plant to deliver electricity to the grid was the Russian reactor AM-1, at Obninsk, near Moscow, on opened on 27 June 1954. It was also used as a research reactor for the Soviet nuclear navy. The first nuclear reactor devoted purely to civil power generation was the Shippingport Atomic Power plant, in Pennsylvania close to Pittsburgh, which opened on 2 December 1957.
As for Mr Cochrane’s almost Panglossian hope for huge British job creation as a result of new nuclear build, he should consult the report commissioned last March from Oxford Economics by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which found that domestic suppliers would be able to win a maximim of 44% of the supply chain contracts. The main beneficiaries are foreign companies, mainly French.
And his argument is hypocritical, as new nuclear will not be a commercial venture, but a programme bolstered by massive taxpayer-funded subsidies and guarantees for construction, radioactive waste management and insurance cover, to name just three aspects.
I am all for Weir Group gaining new energy sector contracts, but Mr Cochrane should get his facts right before going into print backing a technological loser like nuclear power.