Dungeness B AGR Nuclear Power Station (photo credit: Fred Starr)

Nuclear Power in Britain

Talking ‘bout my generation

In Britain, there are two attitudes to nuclear power. Those, over 65, formed a view of nuclear power when it seemed the most promising solution to Britain’s energy needs. Furthermore and not to be discounted, it put this country alongside America and Russia as the third member of the ‘Big Three‘ with nuclear weapons.

Then there are those under 50, who must have first heard of nuclear via the Three Mile Island Disaster and as they grew up, became conscious of the billions that were wasted in the commissioning of the long delayed Advanced Gas Cooled Reactors (AGR). These views were then reinforced by Chernobyl in 1986 and more recently by the calamity at Fukushima in 2011.

But where do the two authors of Golden Egg or Poisoned Chalice: The Story of Nuclear Power in the UK stand? From their ages, both Tony Wooldridge and Stephen Druce come into the post 65 pro-nuclear category. Furthermore, Wooldridge was with the CEGB for many years before joining the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII), while Druce joined the UKAEA soon after getting his PhD and seems to have spent most of his career in the research side of the nuclear industry, before also ending up with the NII. Nevertheless, this book is as good a potted history as you’ll find about what has gone on in Britain – but not the UK as the title suggests, for it is a mercy that atomic power did not reach Northern Ireland. That would have been fun . . . for some!

Civil-Military Overlap

One of the book’s best chapters is at the beginning and shows how the driving force for nuclear development was to make plutonium for atomic weapons, while the penultimate chapter ‘Concluding Remarks‘ is also very good in summarising what the authors have written, making critical comments on some of the key aspects. Sections include What are the pitfalls in adopting a new design of reactor? where it explains how new safety considerations can add significantly to the costs of a so called proven design. This is followed by the section Why have the costs of nuclear power continued to increase? where the authors highlight the astonishing fact that the generating costs of Magnox, the AGR, Sizewell B and Hinkley Point C have all come in the range 7-10 p/kWh in modern money. Incidentally, I wonder whether the modern fashion to quote power prices in £/MWh is a device to A) not frighten the public and B) to delude politicians into how much we will be paying for electricity in future.

Hinton’s Heritage

With my first memory of nuclear being that of the Windscale disaster, this book could have been no more than a stroll down memory lane. But Wooldridge and Druce have got hold of Sir Christopher Hinton’s unpublished book on the early and middle years of nuclear, which resides in the Churchill College Archives at Cambridge. Who was Hinton, many of you will ask? Well, his first job, back in 1946, was to get Britain enough plutonium to make an atom bomb! He then became head of the production group at the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) Harwell, which led to the Calder Hall pre-Magnox reactors. This was about the only reactor built to time, having to be ready for opening by the Queen in October 1956. As someone who got things done, and a nuclear man, Hinton was airlifted out of Harwell into the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB), becoming Chairman – the perfect choice, apparently!

Dungeness Nuclear Power Station (photo credit: Fred Starr)

Dungeness Nuclear Power Station (photo credit: Fred Starr)

Once there, Hinton found that the nuclear programme was running out of control, with the CEGB being expected to buy into a vastly expanded Magnox program. Understanding the limitations of the technology and likely problems in upscaling Calder Hall, he fought against it. However, the authors show that Harwell had the ear of the Government (and the relevant part of the Civil Service) at a time when all Governments were keen to find a way out of the looming shortfalls in power production. Here I can add that almost all the way through the post war era Coal Miners were periodically causing trouble, only adding to the fact that British Coal reserves were diminishing.

While accepting the pressures Governments were under, it is quite clear, from what the authors dug up in their book, that a very murky game was in progress. Key parties and individuals did not get the information they needed and were deliberately misled, while MPs and the public did not seem to count! Their chapter on the AGR saga shows that this indeed went on for years. Dungeness B, the first AGR, was approved before any sort of detailed design was offered up, with the site, as they say in the art world, being truly a “work in progress” going on for 21 years.

A Decade of Dithering

Owing to panic-like over ordering by the CEGB, partly in response to the massive jump up in demand from the Clean Air Acts, we soon had a surplus of coal, oil, and nuclear generating capacity. This results in another good chapter in the book entitled “The 1970s – The Decade of Indecision”. During this time, belief in the superiority of gas cooled reactors like the AGR was fading. Nevertheless, Harwell still had some hold on the Government and were pushing the Steam Generating Heavy Water Reactor (SGHWR) and the High Temperature Reactor. Although the SGHWR sounds like the Canadian Heavy Water Reactor, which I am sure helped gain it Government support, it is actually quite different. By the end of the 1970s the CEGB had lost interest with their attention turning to the Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR), which has a separate chapter to itself.

The only PWR built in this country is Sizewell B, but the expectation was that as many as five such reactors would be built as these would undercut electricity from both new AGRs and new Coal. Estimated price was 2.32p/kWh but here I cannot resist passing on the joke at the time, which was that the numbers in this guesstimate were spot on, but only after the decimal point! The chapter on the PWR covers the safety changes that were add-ons to the Westinghouse design, and also some of the to-and-fro that went on during the public inquiry. The authors comment, tartly, that the objectors have to spend time and money fighting Industry groups who have deep pockets and also know that the Government is on their side!

Hinkley Point A - Decommissioned Magnox Station (photo credit: Jonathan Aylen)

Hinkley Point A – Decommissioned Magnox Station (photo credit: Jonathan Aylen)

Privatisation Reveals All

Hopes for a tranche of PWRs ended up like a beached whale, under the impact of electricity privatisation and gas fuelled Combined Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT) power stations, which is covered in a separate chapter. Being nuclear people, I don’t think the authors understand how the CCGT has completely transformed the power market. The fuel is cheap, with the first units having thermal efficiencies of 47% which are now in the low sixties. But most importantly, they can be built in less than three years and they don’t need to be stuck on a coastal site, miles from anywhere.

The book contains additional chapters on the disasters that have taken place outside of the UK. Although these events are part of nuclear’s troubled history, apart from the fact they increased public suspicion in this form of power generation, I don’t think they add much to what is actually a very reasonable account. I would have personally liked more information, drawings and pictures about the design of British reactors, their key components and what went wrong with them – but then it’s not that kind of book.

Hinkley C construction site Aug 2020 (photo credit: Jonathan Aylen)

Hinkley C – Construction Site Aug 2020 (photo credit: Jonathan Aylen)

The Future is Renewables

The final chapter entitled Epilogue, is perhaps an unfortunate title given that so many knowledgeable people in this country would like to see nuclear come to an end, and looks at what might be called the near future. It briefly covers new types of reactor, including the Small Modular Design (SMR) and the way-out Generation IV types. When the authors were putting the book together only the PWR at Hinkley Point C was quite definite. However the key long term competition is renewables and here the authors point out that the Small Modular Design doesn’t look at all competitive!

There was one final laugh in this chapter for me and that is the proposal by Dieter Helm, saying that because Governments can borrow money at lower interest rates, tax payers should carry part of the construction costs. Perhaps Dieter doesn’t remember that this was what was going on in the days of the CEGB! What killed nuclear (after privatisation) was that commercial organisations had to borrow money at the going rate and it was this recognition by an Assistant Director at British Gas’s London Research Station, that kept me in a job, as he saw that it meant there were novel opportunities in prospect, for the use of gas to generate electricity – and so gas for a time, not nuclear energy, was going to be the fuel of the future.

Dr Fred Starr FIMMM.FIE, MIMechE, C.Eng

An earlier version of this review was published by The British Institute of Non-Destructive Testing in 2019

To purchase a copy of this book please click on the cover image

Author: Tony Wooldridge / Stephen Druce

Publisher: The British Institute of NDT

Volume: 1

ISBN: 978 0 903132 74 5

Golden Egg Or Poison Chalice / The Story Of Nuclear Power In the UK by Tony Wooldridge & Stephen Bruce

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About the Author: Fred Starr

Fred Starr

Fred has been an active member of Newcomen, especially since 2007, after four years as a visiting consultant with the EU’s Institute for Energy in North Holland. He suggested, and then helped organise Conferences on the “Piston Engine Revolution” and on WWI “Swords into Ploughshares”. Here, he acknowledges tremendous support and encouragement from Ed Marshall and Bryan Lawton - “Cronies” in the best sense of the word.

In 2018 Fred and Jonathan Aylen put together the Newcomen Society Summer Conference on Teesside. Something that Fred, as a native of Stockton-on-Tees thought well overdue.

Fred graduated with a degree in Metallurgy, in 1966. Most of his working life was spent at the British Gas, London Research Station. Initially employed as a failure investigator on steam reforming plants, he became responsible for developing materials to resist high temperature corrosion in advanced gas making environments.

As this work began to wind down in the mid-eighties, Fred headed projects relating to gas turbines and Stirling engines. After leaving British Gas in 1996, he worked with several organisations, in which corrosion in coal and waste incineration fired steam plant were critical issues. Because of this wide background he was invited to join the EU’s Institute for Energy, where he transformed the way that technologies relating to the production of hydrogen were viewed.

Since formally retiring, Fred continues to monitor the energy scenario in Britain and tends to be scathing about the claims of the various protagonists for wind, nuclear, carbon capture, and district heating.


  1. Avatar
    Colin Megson 6th September 2020 at 2:50 pm - Reply

    “…However the key long term competition is renewables and here the authors point out that the Small Modular Design doesn’t look at all competitive!……….What killed nuclear (after privatisation) was that commercial organisations had to borrow money at the going rate…”

    GE Hitachi’s BWRX-300 Small Modular Reactor (SMR) changes all of that. It has a 2 years build programme – no different to Wind And Solar Plants (WASPs). GE H openly proclaim on their BWRX-300 webpage, a capital cost of US$2,250/kW for the NOAK. The FOAK will be operational in 2027 and should be available for manufacture under licence in the UK, by 2030.

    For 3,200 MW, the capital investment required would be £5.6 billion, that’s 72% below Sizewell C’s 2 x 1600 MW EPRs, at £20 billion. And it’s easy to see why, if you have a bit of engineering nous.

    These pseudo-green fund managers will be clawing at one another’s throats to get their pots out of WASPs and into BWRX-300 nuclear power plants. When the BWRX-300 is up and running, it will be the beginning of the end of the insane decades of our energy-inept politicians being suckered into gambling at the WASP technology roulette-wheel of operators like renewableUK and other slick individuals and organisations.

    £1.00 invested in a BWRX-300 will ‘earn’ many times more than £1.00 invested in WASPs:

    Onshore Wind – 7.2X more: https://bwrx-300-nuclear-uk.blogspot.com/2020/05/fund-managers-with-320-million-to.html

    Offshore Wind – 12X more: https://bwrx-300-nuclear-uk.blogspot.com/2020/05/invest-90-billion-in-offshore-wind.html

    Solar PV – 15.5X more: https://bwrx-300-nuclear-uk.blogspot.com/2020/05/fund-managers-with-424-million-to.html

  2. Avatar
    Colby 26th September 2020 at 5:38 pm - Reply

    I recognize this is a review of a text I have not read but there are a few statements here that could use some context. The “troubled history” of nuclear could refer to a few things that would be put into better context.

    If the trouble is about accidents, nuclear energy by far is still the safest, all accidents and externalities included compared to other energy sources. Fossil fuels kill thousands of people every day which is more than the entire history of nuclear energy.

    If it is about proliferation, the choice to make weapons does not require nuclear power plants. U235 can be enriched to weapons grade material without a reactor. Despite the historical overlap, there are modern reactor designs with fuel cycles that make them mostly useless Pu239 production which would be required for a weapons program. No high enrichment of U235 is necessary and the neutron economics of the reactors make too much Pu240 for the SNF to be useful for Pu239 extraction.

    Outside of technical feasibility, weapons and proliferation are mostly a concern of policy and oversight. If we care about disarmament, civilian reactors will be required for total transmutation (destruction) of down blended weapons grade material with cost recovery as demonstrated by the Megatons to Megawatts program.

    If it is over economics, that blame falls on policy decisions that add massive costs and barriers which further prevents advancement and deters investment. The writing somewhat alludes to this with interest rates but doesn’t go further behind the intentions of those decisions. There are plenty of regulations on the nuclear sector which add to the costs without adding much safety. This was the strategy of the antinuclear lobby going back decades, to make the public fear nuclear energy to justify cost adding regulations until the industry could no longer compete with fossil fuels.

    Cheap gas is a reality of our modern economy but this is compared to everything as it has developed over decades of policy and regulations shaping the economics. Many policy decisions over the decades have put nuclear on a major disadvantage which is arguably unfair compared to the harm imposed and benefits received by fossil fuels. If fossil fuel power plants were required to capture and store all the CO2 they produce over the past several decades, would they have stayed competitive compared to nuclear? Policy can make or break an industry regardless of real world risk or technical potential.

    CCGTs are one of the cheapest dispatchable power assets within the cost and policy structures built up over decades of antinuclear lobbying. Yet the conversion efficiency of 60% vs. 30% is only one metric in a larger system of considerations for technical efficiency. LNG has an energy density of ~50-55 MJ/Kg, Uranium is at least 5 orders of magnitude more energy dense by weight in the most common reactors, even more so by volume.

    As a visual, an AP1000 (~1 GW reactor) can go 2 years on 1 fuel load between refueling. Its burn up is “60 Gigawatt days per ton of fuel” which is the equivalent of ~5 Petajoules (5,184,000,000 MJ) requiring ~97,000 tons of LNG, equivalent to 134,000 cubic meters in volume. Since 19 tons of uranium can fit into 1 cubic meter, the fuel volume comparison is even more severe. The larger LNG Tankers have a storage capacity of ~250,000 cubic meters meaning it would take about ten of these large LNG tankers to transport the equivalent of 1 cubic meter of uranium worth of energy.

    The AP1000 does not burn up all the uranium that goes into it, and there are other factors involved, but the baseline energy density of 1:97,000 by weight is far more impactful than the thermal conversion efficiency of a CCGT being twice as efficient as a nuclear reactor.

    The “renewables are the future” segment did not say enough to point at directly, but I would argue based on grid modeling alone that intermittent renewables cannot fully displace fossil fuels. Solar and wind require a larger build out of gas plants for rapid firming in areas that are not hydro dominant. It does not matter how cheap solar and wind systems get, they will still require gas firming while still imposing massive environmental and material footprints. This is not a viable pathway to zero carbon.

  3. Fred Starr
    Fred Starr 5th October 2020 at 6:18 pm - Reply

    It is a pity that the authors of Golden Egg – Poisoned Chalice have not joined in this dialogue. As it happens I have privately received a good deal of criticism from Colin Megson and Colby Kirk, both very strong protagonists for nuclear.

    A few years back I used to get the same sort of criticism from the advocates of conventional generating plant, using coal as a fuel. Both sets of people considered that their option, nuclear or coal should get the same support that they say is given to wind energy.

    What is not recognised that the world has changed. Certainly in Western Europe, where politicians and the public are behind a technology which will reduce carbon emissions as quickly as possible. For this to happen with steam coal plants will require the use of disused North Sea oil and gas reservoirs for CO2 storage. This subject has been pushed to one side for years, with nothing being done, while millions are wasted on pilot plant capture experiments.

    In the case of nuclear, although in principle, it is free from CO2 emissions, the years that it takes to get the go ahead for a nuclear plant, and then the years needed to build these plants and get them commissioned , means that that nuclear is not a just-around-the-corner solution to the green house gas issue. Colin Megson says that the new General Electric production line of small nuclear plants will change everything……I will believe that when General Electric builds small nuclear plants on its own factory sites.

    And could I add, how much greenhouse gas is spent storing and looking after the nuclear waste.

    Contrast this with wind power. While in the Netherlands in 2006, I saw within a kilometre of where I worked, a set of megawatt sized wind generators being put up and got running in a matter of weeks. Then there was the much larger farm, out at sea, being built. From the start of construction to operation was about 9 months.

    Finally, even in the long gone, dream world of nuclear, where every power station is nuclear, there is recognition that the electrical demand varies from day to night, and from winter to summer. Even PWR nuclear is not good at meeting these changes in demand, which in Britain at this time of the year (September) varies from about 35000 MW down to just over 21000 MW.

    Their answer appears to be to use the “spare night time power” to make hydrogen. What seems to have been missed is that the hydrogen, in energy terms, will cost about 20% more than the electricity from which it is made. If used for heating there are additional losses, increasing the real cost to more than 50%. But the crunch comes if hydrogen is used in fuel cell vehicles. Recent figures, which personally I think are too pessimistic, put the wind generator to wheel
    ratio at 3.5/1!!!!

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