Any other business

Hunterston’s closure is the nuclear accident no one noticed

15 January 2022

9:00 AM

15 January 2022

9:00 AM

So farewell, Hunterston B, the nuclear power plant on the Firth of Clyde that shut last week after 46 years’ service. It will be followed this summer by Hinkley Point B in Somerset and in 2024 by Hartlepool and Heysham, leaving the UK with just four nuclear stations boasting five gigawatts of generating capacity between them — when they’re not suffering extended ‘outages’ for maintenance and repair. That compares with 15 stations and 13 gigawatts, meeting a quarter of UK electricity demand, at the UK’s mid-1990s nuclear peak.

Meanwhile, the 3.2 gigawatt Hinkley Point C, developed by EDF of France and due on stream in 2026, ‘may be delayed after defects were found in a similar reactor in China’, reported New Civil Engineer last month — and Sizewell C in Suffolk, also EDF’s, awaits a government green light. Both projects have Chinese money behind them; but as for the all-Chinese reactor planned to follow at Bradwell in Essex, my bet is it will never happen. And ‘small modular reactors’, capable of powering a million homes each, that Rolls-Royce and others are developing? Probably a decade away.

Nothing new here: the closure of so many nuclear sites before replacement capacity was even off the drawing board is an accidental outcome of decades of ministerial feebleness. Ah, you say, but we have wonderful renewable projects coming on stream — such as the 75-acre solar farm at Spetisbury in Dorset that will soon power offices in the City of London. But solar generation in our climate is roughly one-seventh as efficient as nuclear and Hunterston’s closure alongside the drive to minimise fossil-fuel generation reminds us that we’re increasingly reliant on a very unreliable aspect of nature: weather.

To quote a 2018 BEIS paper: ‘The fluctuating generation of [wind, solar and hydro] technologies contrasts with nuclear, which provides a continuous reliable base-load supply that helps to ensure that demand can always be met.’ As our nuclear estate shrinks, pray like the sailor for clear skies and fair winds.

Stable door bolted

A new law came into force without fanfare this month that radically changes the business climate by giving the government extensive new powers to block foreign takeovers of UK companies, or strategic stakes of 25 per cent or more. The National Security and Investment Act applies to sensitive sectors ranging from advanced materials to artificial intelligence, civil nuclear, ‘critical suppliers to government’, data infrastructure, defence, and ‘synthetic biology’.

According to Alok Sharma, the former business secretary who introduced the bill in 2020, it was a message to ‘hostile actors’ — by which he clearly meant, top of the list, state-connected Chinese firms — ‘that there is no back door to the UK’. But Sharma’s Labour predecessor Lord Mandelson called it ‘a powerful deterrent to foreign direct investment’, while former Office of Fair Trading director John Fingleton wrote in the FTthat the legislation played to ‘conspiracy theories about malevolent foreigners itching to buy up corporations in order to steal hard-won secrets’. Who’s right?

Foreign investment in all forms has bolstered the UK economy ever since Margaret Thatcher’s heyday; many of our best businesses and ideas long ago passed into overseas ownership and that tradition of openness is probably the strongest selling point of ‘global Britain’. On the other hand, allowing Huawei into our telecoms infrastructure and China General Nuclear into Hinkley Point are now seen as major embarrassments, while the rate at which Chinese investors are buying up smaller UK technology and life-science ventures is startling.

The US and EU have already moved towards the kind of protectionism the Act represents. It’s the way of the world and, in our case, a very late bolting of the stable door.

Not so far away

‘A quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.’ That was Neville Chamberlain’s summary of the 1938 Sudeten dispute in Czechoslovakia. And since the old boy is back in fashion with the cinema release of Munich: The Edge of War, it seems apt to apply his famous phrase to current unrest in faraway Kazakhstan — provoked by fuel price rises and essentially, you might think, none of our business.

Or is it? Should the London Stock Exchange feel embarrassed that, in its urge to attract international business, it has listed quite so many Kazakh companies associated with the regime and family of former autocrat Nursultan Nazarbayev, reported to have scuttled to Moscow last week? Possibly. Should we worry about potential disruption in supplies of uranium, of which Kazakhstan is the world’s biggest producer? Possibly not, since we have so few nuclear power stations.

But should we keep watching the story? You bet, bearing in mind my prediction last week that the soaring cost of living, including a leap in energy bills, could eventually topple Boris Johnson. ‘Corrupt ruler flees after nationwide fuel protests’ is a headline that should cause tremors in Downing Street.

Ghost in the shed

How remarkable that the other Rolls-Royce — the subsidiary of BMW that builds luxury limos at Goodwood in Sussex — should have broken its all-time sales record last year by selling 5,586 new cars around the world, 416 more than in pre-pandemic 2019. There could hardly be a more vivid indicator of pent-up lockdown spending power. But I’m intrigued by the 313 sales in the UK: 128 of those were muscular Cullinan SUVs, no doubt a popular choice for oligarchs on gated Surrey estates; 33 were open-topped Dawn coupés, ideal for Premier League footballers. But who bought the 88 elongated Ghost saloons? These 12-urban-miles-to-the-gallon symbols of plutocracy are as rare a public sighting today as floor-length mink coats. Perhaps their owners hoard them like Van Goghs, in secret air-conditioned sheds.

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