The Prime Minister has just been to Paris to sign a deal with France to, as the BBC puts it, “strengthen co-operation in the development of civil nuclear energy” with much happy talk of, “our shared commitment to the future of civil nuclear power, setting out a shared long-term vision of safe, secure, sustainable and affordable energy, that supports growth and helps to deliver our emission reductions targets“.
Translation: we have agreed a deal to buy a number of nuclear reactors from the French nuclear company Areva.
And this is a BIG deal. According to Radio 4′s Today, the first four reactors will cost a total of £20 billion and will create 1,500 UK jobs.
But enquire a little and it doesn’t start to look too clever. Interviewed by Evan Davis on Today, the boss of ‘New Build’ for Areva in the UK, was gushing about the potential, “the UK is the most exciting new build opportunity in Europe; it’s one of the most exciting in the world….” He explained (above link) that, “Rolls-Royce will become our prime manufacturing partner to supply some £100m of key critical components of the reactor for each EPR [next generation nuclear power plant] that’s constructed in the UK“. Apparently Rolls Royce will build a factory in Rotherham to fill orders flowing from the deal and this will include supplying equipment for orders in other countries.
Do the numbers. Rolls Royce is to get £100 million out of £5 billion per reactor – that’s just 2%. Other companies will be involved but the Rolls Royce deal alone accounts for 80% of the £500 million identified so far. And, according to their website, Rolls Royce already supplies “safety-critical instrumentation and control systems to all 58 operating nuclear power facilities in France …” so it’s not clear how much of this work is actually extra.
And yet we have it straight from Areva’s senior man that this is ”the one of the most exciting [opportunities] in the world“. With that much buying power 2%, is a truly pathetic result. The percentage will inevitably rise during the construction phase but much of that will be the modern equivalent of navvies. The strong implication is that most of the high-tech value-added bits are coming from France.
This looks very much like a replay of the trains affair where a £1.4 billion contract was awarded to Siemens with one crucial difference. This time as a result of years of dithering and confusion in Whitehall there is no domestic competitor; we built the world’s first commercial reactor but no longer have a fully capable civil nuclear supply industry because the UK simply doesn’t provide a suitable ‘habitat’ for complex, technology companies headquartered here (Rolls Royce is a very rare exception).
£20 billion (and that’s just for the first phase of a bigger programme) is enough to make a big difference to the economy as any Keynesians would point out – indeed that new energy investment would do just that has been the constant refrain from governments over many years (although they normally prefer to talk more of renewables than nuclear). The trouble is that the economic boost in this case is going largely to France.
Politicians have been grandstanding about how the latest technology was going to ‘jump start the economy’ since Harold Wilson’s ”white heat of technology” speech (and probably long before that) but we are slowly and steadily going backwards. It’s a good idea in principle but they just don’t know how to do it.
And yet the how of it is perfectly discoverable; any number of Asian countries, starting with Japan and later South Korea, Taiwan and others have worked out how to do it. We could too – I don’t even think it’s terribly difficult – but first we would have to start asking the right questions and as far as I can see no political party is yet doing that. Why not?