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Toshiba's failure shows business can't deliver a nuclear future

The Guardian logo The Guardian 09/11/2018 Phillip Inman

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(Provided by: Reuters)

If the government was keen to boost Britain’s nuclear industry, it was always clear that the private market would struggle to deliver.

The decision by Toshiba to close down its UK operations is a case in point. After the deal to build new reactors at Hinkley Point with the French firm EDF, Toshiba was favoured by ministers to design and construct a smaller power station on the Cumbrian coast.

Hinkley was a deal that appeared to be with a private company but the really meaningful talks were between Whitehall officials and their counterparts in the French government, EDF’s controlling shareholder. It took years of agonising brinkmanship to conclude the talks, much of them conducted on the French side by the then economy minister, Emmanuel Macron.

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a view of a lush green field: NuGen’s proposed site near Sellafield, west Cumbria. © PA NuGen’s proposed site near Sellafield, west Cumbria.

Toshiba, on the other hand, is a private company struggling on its own to navigate the complex politics surrounding nuclear power in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.

In 2006 it bought the US nuclear business Westinghouse, part of British Nuclear Fuels and home to much of the UK’s nuclear power industry. With climate change creeping to the top of the agenda and demand for new nuclear plants around the world growing, it seemed like a good idea.

However, the 2011 Fukushima disaster changed all that. Governments in Japan and other countries halted the development of new nuclear plants. Last year, cost overruns on building the first new US nuclear power plants in three decades pushed Westinghouse into bankruptcy and Toshiba into financial meltdown. The future of the Cumbrian nuclear plant has been in doubt ever since.

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Earlier this year Toshiba sold Westinghouse to a private equity outfit as a services provider for existing nuclear plants. The construction of new reactors was not on the agenda. To no one’s surprise, Toshiba has now confirmed it has abandoned building any new plants in the UK.

Without entering the argument about whether nuclear is a good option – and the government advisory body, the National Infrastructure Commission, is unequivocal that renewables such as wind and solar were going to be a safer, cheaper option – it is clear huge commitments of time, resources and political capital are necessary for infrastructure projects of this scale to get off the ground and through to completion.

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