Busting a gut to compete

At the beginning of 1957, Christopher Hinton was deep within a national experiment to centrally kick-start a British reactor manufacturing industry. Four electrical firms had been encouraged and bullied into teaming up with boilermakers to form consortia that could bid for contracts to build British (and potentially overseas) reactors. The monopoly electricity supplier, the Central Electricity Authority, had been dragged kicking into commencing the build-out of 1½ to 2 GWe (a massive program) of nuclear plants over the decade from 1955.

On January 25, Hinton wrote to Claude Gibb, his friend and CEO of the strongest of the four consortia, then breaking soil at the site for what would be the Bradwell nuclear plant. Gibb had written to Hinton two days earlier, bemoaning that his consortium had lost out to an American firm in a tendering opportunity in Italy, the bellwether country for European expansion. Listen to Hinton’s candid response:

We can not see how the Americans are to quote as low a price as £90 per kw. for a P.W.R. Plant. It may be that they are being subsidised but if they are there is nothing we can do about it. It is a measure of the weakness of their position rather than its strength. We have always realised that the Americans would bust a gut to export nuclear power plants. They have no real domestic demand for these plants and they can build up an atomic energy industry only by export. We, on the other hand, have a large domestic demand and could build up an industry of very reasonable and health size even if we failed to secure business in the export market. They cannot become very prosperous by continuing to subsidise their industry and if we succeed in maintaining our present technological lead we are bound to come out all right in the long run. There is certainly no justification for subsidising exports of nuclear power plants from Great Britain and I know that you do not, for one minute, suggest this.

Hinton, Christopher. 1957. Hinton to Gibb, Jan. 25, 1957. AB 19/43. National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom.

There are so many fascinating aspects to this letter! The only one I’ll touch on here is the sense of superiority and condescension displayed by Hinton, attitudes that proved to be completely misplaced (to put it bluntly, the United States steamrolled the United Kingdom in the reactor export market over the 1950s and into the 1960s). And may I invite an enterprising historian to dig deeply (deeper than I can manage) into the complexities of this political-commercial battle? I’m certain that there’s a drama-filled book in this subject alone.

Hinton letter extract