A History of the Liberalised Electricity Industry in 25 Freebies Part 4: A Nuclear Electric Badge (circa 1996)
A History of the Liberalised Electricity Industry in 25 Freebies Part 4: A Nuclear Electric badge (circa 1996)
In his first Prime Minister’s Questions to Tony Blair back in 2005, David Cameron as Leader of the Opposition told the House of Commons, “I want to talk about the future”, and added (referring to the Prime Minister), “He was the future once.”
A nice jibe. David Cameron was also the future once – at that very moment in retrospect – but we all know the more recent history.
In this fourth part of our series A History of the Liberalised Electricity Industry in 25 Freebies our object is a pin badge featuring the logo of Nuclear Electric on the obverse and bearing the motto “Energy for the 21st Century”.
So nuclear was the future once – and perhaps still is… who knows from this vantage point?
We mentioned science fiction author Isaac Asimov last time. In 1983 he was asked by the Toronto Star to make predictions for the year 2019 (see here)– subscription required), and amongst some eerily accurate ones he also foresaw solar farms on the Moon as the big thing in generation technology. This year. The future ain’t what it used to be, obviously.
What was Nuclear Electric then? Well until 1989 almost all generation in England and Wales was owned by the Central Electricity Generating Board, or CEGB. The privatisation strategy at the time was to split its fleet between Powergen plc and the larger National Power plc. National Power would be bigger than Powergen because it would inherit the fleet of nuclear stations as well as generating using coal and oil. That was the plan. In Scotland the nuclear assets of the South of Scotland Electricity Board were moved to Scottish Nuclear Limited.
Nuclear Electric sprang into being in late 1989, when it was belatedly realised that it would be impossible to privatise the CEGB’s nuclear generating stations at the same time as the other stations. Just before the Electricity Act 1989 was passed, the Government announced that it had found that the fleet of nuclear reactors, particularly those employing the ageing Magnox technology, were simply too expensive to compete in the new market, and were “ignominiously pulled”, to quote the opposition spokesperson at the time.
As it happened the 1970s and 1980s era Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor (AGR) stations were also pretty difficult to sell in the City too, and Nuclear Electric became home for them too. The ambition to privatise at least part of the nuclear industry remained, however, and in 1996 Magnox Electric was spun up to take away the Magnox stations of both Nuclear Electric and Scottish Nuclear, whilst the AGR and PWR sites were transferred to Nuclear Electric. Nuclear Electric was to be renamed the patriotic-sounding British Energy, and shares sold to the public.
It was not a good time for a company endowed only with inflexible baseload generation to be hitting the market, however. The reforms to the market known as the New Electricity Trading Arrangements (NETA) in March 2001, over-capacity as a result of the gas stations built in the 1990s, and global fuel price weakness combined to cause a wholesale price slump in England and Wales. This was more than British Energy could stand, and in 2002 the share price dived to below 10 pence. A rescue became necessary, and nationalisation effectively ensued.
So this particular badge could only really have appeared between roughly 1990 and 1997, and in all likelihood 1996, prior to rebranding and after becoming the designated vehicle for privatisation.
Subsequently British Energy was sold to EDF, and the more recent history of nuclear in Great Britain remains in the news, particularly with the saga of Hinkley C, due to come online around 2025, and the current debate about Sizewell ‘C’.
The debate about what the energy for the 21st century should be is almost eternal, something like the old joke about how fusion generation is always been thirty years away. But, as with hemlines, there is something of a cycle in political support.
After the British Energy collapse, support for nuclear was somewhat in the doldrums. It had come unstuck because of its high costs, but behind the scenes there were still plenty of proponents. And in fact there was an emerging environmental selling point in an era of growing concern about carbon emissions. By 2006 Tony Blair had decided that nuclear generation was “back with a vengeance”:
“we have to debate very seriously whether we need to replace nuclear power stations to guarantee the future energy needs of this country; otherwise, we would be engaging in a collective dereliction of our duty”
It isn’t widely remembered that the future Prime Minister was in fact the young and ambitious Shadow Secretary of State for Energy mentioned earlier during the debates on the 1989 Electricity Bill. Contrast his 2006 enthusiasm with this one of his contributions to the 1989 debate on the same subject: “if the privatisation process has taught us anything, if it has brought us any benefit, it is that it has exploded once and for all the notion that we should go nuclear because it is cheaper”.
Plus ça change…