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John Kay: Britain’s Impending Energy Crisis Lies Squarely With Prevaricating Politicians

John Kay, Financial Times

The origins of Britain’s impending energy crisis go back half a century. The Beatles were in their heyday, the young Harold Wilson was a freshly elected prime minister committed to “the white heat of technology”. But British consumers experienced power cuts during the winter.

The government announced a massive programme to expand electricity generating capacity. The plan included several coal-fired stations of unprecedented size. But its showpiece was the construction of five nuclear power stations to a newly developed British design, the advanced gas-cooled reactor, or AGR. “I am quite sure we have hit the jackpot,” said Fred Lee, the minister in charge, enthusing about the technology’s export prospects.

The plan was an economic disaster. The stations were subject to horrendous delays and cost overruns. It would be 30 years before they came close to operating efficiently. The shortfall in capacity did not matter much because the electricity was not needed anyway. Needless to say, the export markets did not materialise. In the 1980s the Thatcher government shut down most of the coal industry, built one new nuclear station – to a proven US design – and privatised the industry.

Privatisation was in most respects a success. Power companies built smaller stations using combined cycle gas-fired technology that was fuel efficient and quick and cheap to construct. The scale of the economic cost of nuclear was finally revealed; executives who had misled ministers and parliament were more fearful of the consequences of misleading investors. The nuclear plants were pulled from the sale. They were later privatised as British Energy, which went bust and after reconstruction was acquired by Eléctricité de France. […]

The uncertain availability of wind turbines means that even if they yield some power they do not reduce the need for other generating capacity.

To be able to use power the UK needs to build power stations. But it is easier to posture, prevaricate and procrastinate than to take decisions whose consequences will only be evident many years from now. When the lights flicker, as they will, the responsibility will lie squarely with the preoccupation of politicians with sound bites and tabloid headlines.

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