04 December 1987 - 06 December 1987

The Future of Nuclear Power in Energy Policy

Chair: Sir Frank Layfield QC

The debate opened slowly on Friday evening, perhaps because the ground was familiar to many, but by Sunday became much more lively. We started considering the reasons for generating electricity by nuclear power: the relative costs, an issue that formed the substance of Group A's work, security of supply, reduction of pressure on other fuels, and the postponement of climatic change caused by fossil fuels. Against these, however, had to be set the need for stringent regulatory controls, public concerns over safety and waste disposal, the forecast slow growth of demand over the medium term in step with GDP and the reduced attractiveness of nuclear power economics owing to the cost of finance and the fall in the price of coal and oil, the principal competitors. The fast breeder reactor was a prospect in the long-term, but fusion was too distant to be considered.

These themes dominated the discussion throughout. Although by about 2020-30 existing nuclear power stations would need to be replaced, a combination of adverse factors especially in the US, resulting in long lead-times, and public antipathy, meant that there was little or no prospect of new orders in the next 5-10 years. The situation was not dissimilar in the Federal Republic and in much of Europe. Only in Japan (where the aim was to lift nuclear power's present 28% share of electricity production to a figure of 60% by 2030), South Korea, Taiwan, France, the Soviet Union and in a modest way the UK, were there prospects of continuing programmes of nuclear power construction - and in the UK at least any such programme was susceptible, as in the past, to shifts in governmental attitudes. That said, it was accepted that all detailed forecasts were likely to be proved wrong and that surprises were certain, even if over a long period variations tended to fluctuate round the mean, with real fuel costs remaining remarkably steady.

All participants agreed that a sound nuclear power programme required stability of policy on the part of government, and standardisation on a proven design. Only thus could the benefits of scale be enjoyed, as in France where the cost of coal-produced electricity was 15 times higher than nuclear. A centralised, state-owned system with the simplified regulatory regime that tended to go with it, was conducive to the fulfilment of these conditions, but not alone enough: the Federal Republic and Japan, in their different ways, had achieved stable programmes, despite fragmented industries, and the UK had largely failed to achieve one, despite a united industry. The US, its industry fragmented and trammelled by a complicated regulatory regime, had failed to achieve a stable programme or standardisation of design, so that installed costs ranged from $2000 to $5000 per Kilowatt, against $1000 in a hypothetical-ideal scenario, and actual figures of $1500 in France and $1700-1850 in Japan and the UK.

Both in plenary meetings and in the groups participants were much occupied with the public perception of nuclear power as hazardous and unattractive. This attitude, which varied however from country to country, was largely the industry's own fault. It had been arrogant, secretive and sometimes downright misleading in its claims. Accordingly, while, for example, expert opinion to-day agreed that the technical problems of safe storage and disposal of waste (by no means all from nuclear power) had been solved, people remained unconvinced, and in any case reluctant to have waste deposited (or a nuclear station established) in their immediate neighbourhood. Where public attitudes to new nuclear stations were most favourable, as in France and Japan, it was largely the result of careful local consultation and education. The industry itself needed to do much more, but it was unlikely to be successful without strong political support and leadership.

Safety must be a crucial consideration, but absolute safety could only be achieved, if at all, at excessive price. (The risks attaching to other forms of power generation also needed to be assessed realistically.) It was necessary to distinguish between serious accidents, dangerous to life and health, the risk of which might be small, and other accidents which, though contained, were costly and dried up the sources of finance for new construction. Nuclear energy had acquired a mystique: that was wrong. Nevertheless it was not just another way of making steam. It was a demanding technology and required good design, well-trained operators and leadership involvement. Contingency planning for handling serious accidents, including large-scale evacuation, was also necessary.

There was some discussion of international standards, applying to construction, operating safety, and acceptable contamination levels, e.g. of foodstuffs. For the first, it seemed to be agreed that common standards were impractical. The second might be desirable, given the recognition that the safety of all was in question in the event of a serious accident anywhere, but difficulties persisted despite greater receptivity after Chernobyl. The third could readily be agreed by the experts, but for various reasons governments had difficulty.

It was agreed that while some countries in the third world might be attracted to nuclear power for strategic or prestige reasons, the economics were unattractive and capital scarce. It was argued, furthermore, that a civil nuclear power programme was an unlikely way to a nuclear weapon capability. There were easier ways to that, though in general the political risks and high costs had hitherto largely deterred any of the "threshold" powers from stepping over it.

Re-processing of spent fuel was discussed. Some stressed the dangers. Others felt that it was justified, as easing the disposal problem, and that the dangers were controllable. If, in the long run, the finite supply of uranium was to be stretched out - "for a millennium" - plutonium as a fuel for fast breeder reactors would be essential.

In conclusion the conference agreed that the future of nuclear power must depend on the economics, the need for security or at least a prudent diversity of supply and the possible climatic argument. The case on those grounds was strong; but against it, had to be set popular concern. That might change, if the economics turned more in favour of nuclear power because of rising costs of other fuels, or if concern increased about the greenhouse effect; but in the short-term there seemed little prospect of major new construction in the developed Western world except in Japan, France and, more questionably, the UK; that the Soviet Union would press on with its nuclear programme while developing other fuels; and that there was little prospect of orders from the developing world. However the industrial capability was in no danger of being lost. Industry had once before turned quickly to nuclear power and could do so again, given, moreover, that the actual nuclear element of a power station was small.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Conference Chairman: Sir Frank Layfield QC
Recorder of the Crown Court

List of participants by country


Mr R H Campbell
Managing Director, Babcock Energy Ltd; Member, Advisory Committee on the Safety of Nuclear Installations
Mr John Collier
Chairman, United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority
Professor Richard Eden OBE
Professor of Energy Studies and Head, Energy Research Group, Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge; Vice President of Clare Hall, Cambridge; Chairman, Caminus Energy Ltd; Member, Eastern Electricity Board
The Rt Hon the Lord Ezra MBE
Life Peer (Liberal); Chairman, Associated Heat Services pic; Industrial Adviser, Morgan Grenfell & Co Ltd
Mr John K Gordon
Head, Nuclear Energy Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Mr Andrew Holmes
Editor, Power Europe, Financial Times Business Information
Sir Philip Jones CB
Chairman, Electricity Council; Member, British Overseas Trade Board
Miss Lucy Kellaway
Energy Correspondent, Financial Times
Mr Brian Laycock
Sales Director, Davy McKee Nuclear
Mr John Maddox
Writer and broadcaster; Member of the Programmes Committee of the Ditchley Foundation
Mr David Morphet
Under-Secretary, Atomic Energy Division Department of Energy; UK Governor, International Atomic Energy Agency; Director, BICC Cables Ltd
Mr Walter Patterson
Energy Consultant
Mr John Prescott MP
Member of Parliament (Labour), Hull East; Opposition Front Bench Spokesman on Energy
Mr Jonathan Stern
Director, Joint Energy Programme, Royal Institute of International Affairs
Dame Margaret Weston DBE
Member, South Eastern Electricity Board; Governor, Imperial College of Science and Technology; a Governor and Member of the Council of Management of the Ditchley Foundation

Dr Kenneth Whitham

Assistant Deputy Minister, Research and Technology Sector, Department of Energy, Mines and Resources (EMR); Fellow, Royal Society of Canada

Mr Clive Jones

Deputy Director General and Head, Energy policy, analyses and contracts Directorate, Directorate-General for Energy, Commission of the European Communities, Brussels

Monsieur Jean-Marie Bourdaire

Directeur des Etudes Economiques, Total CFP
Monsieur Remy Carle
Directeur Général Adjoint, Electricité de France
Monsieur Philippe Savelli
Assistant Director in charge of Communication, Atomic Energy Commission

Dr Thomas Roser

Director-General, German Nuclear Forum

Ing. Paolo Fornaciari

Headof Unified Nuclear Project, Piedmont, ENEL (National Electricity Organisation)

Mr Takuo Yamauchi

General Manager, Chubu Electric Power Co Inc, London

Mr Howard K Shapar

Director General, Nuclear Energy Agency, OECD

Mr Peter Bradford

Chairman, New York State Public Service Commission
Mr Thomas V Chema
Chairman, Public Utilities Commission, Columbus, Ohio
Dr Victor Gilinsky
Mr Fritz Heimann
Associate General Counsel, Power Generation, General Electric Corporation
Mr J Christopher Judd
Vice President & Manager, International Operations, Bechtel Power Corporation
Mr James Knight
Energy Consultant; formerly Vice President, Aramco
Mr William McCollam Jr
President, Edison Electric Institute
Dr Peter B Myers
Staff Director, Board on Radioactive Waste Management, National Academy of Sciences, Washington DC
Ms Mary Ann Novak
Special Assistant for Nuclear Operations, Department of Energy, Washington DC
Mr John A Riggs
Staff Director, House of Representatives Sub Committee on Energy and Power
Dr Carl Walske
President and Chief Operating Officer of the Atomic Industrial Forum Inc.
Mr Lando W Zech Jr
Chairman, United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Mr Anthony Churchill

Director, Energy Department, World Ban