A nuclear revival might stop climate change. But it can revive British manufacturing tooby John Rose / May 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
“Believe me Professor Schrödinger, the cat is dead”
The economic crisis has exposed the dangers of Britain’s unbalanced economy. It is now widely accepted that preventing another such disaster means rebalancing our economy, ending our over-reliance on financial services and revitalising our manufacturing industry. The key to this could lie in a surprising area: nuclear power.
Nuclear has moved up the national and international agenda as problems of energy security and climate change push forward the search for new energy sources. But the nuclear revival could also bring about a renaissance in Britain’s high value-added manufacturing sector.
The government has identified 11 potential sites for its new nuclear power stations, which will provide around 20GW of electrical power. This new-build programme will of course create many construction jobs. More importantly, though, the majority of new jobs—up to 60 per cent—will require skills generic to high value-added manufacturing, such as electro-mechanical design and engineering, systems integration, robotics, materials science and process control. A new round of nuclear power stations is therefore an opportunity to build up this country’s manufacturing skills base through a privately-financed national programme.
The wider economic benefits could be significant too. A new fleet of British reactors will need a substantial supply chain, to support the many phases of a nuclear power station’s 60-year life, from planning and development through to building, operation, upgrading and decommissioning. We start from a strong position. Britain led the commercialisation of nuclear technology with the first nuclear power station at Calder Hall in the 1950s, stimulating a construction programme employing over 100,000 people and resulting in the building of Sizewell B in the 1990s.
Moreover, we still have a nuclear industry. My own company, Rolls-Royce, has a significant nuclear capability: it is involved in the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarine programme and has extensive experience of the French and American nuclear programmes too. By reinvesting in nuclear now, Britain could build new exportable expertise, just as we developed an export-oriented oil and gas industry on the back of North Sea oil.
But these benefits will only be realised if the government moves quickly. Britain is not the only country looking to kickstart a new-build programme. China has already committed to 24 nuclear power stations. The US, India and several middle eastern nations have outlined plans too. Others are also making the link between new nuclear and a new manufacturing impetus, with the US, France and Italy already urging their industries to seize the opportunities of nuclear renaissance. Whichever country gets there first will win a significant advantage, securing important early access to the nuclear supply chain.
The government can help Britain capture this advantage by providing pace, clarity and certainty, starting, for example, by ensuring that regulators have the resources they need. It could also review existing nuclear supply infrastructure—with a view to investing in areas where it finds gaps, and helping companies and universities to develop capabilities where a business case for investment would otherwise be weak—and continue to fund the national nuclear skills academy.
The Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, a partnership sharing scientific expertise and technological innovation between Boeing, the world’s leading aerospace company, and Sheffield University’s faculty of engineering, is already proving the case for fostering technological collaboration between industry, local government and academia. This programme should be expanded to meet the manufacturing needs a nuclear renaissance will bring. Such measures would highlight the opportunities in this new industry, encouraging young people to study science-based subjects, and giving companies the confidence to invest—from planning and recruitment to building the facilities needed to develop necessary systems and components.
If Britain seizes this moment, in 50 years the expansion of new nuclear power will be seen as the starting point for the renaissance not only of high value-added manufacturing, but of the economy as a whole. If it does not, we may find ourselves regretting a missed opportunity.