Hinton’s myopia

Christopher Hinton was one of the three scientist/engineer pioneers who oversaw the build-up from nothing of a massive British nuclear infrastructure over the first dozen post-war years, then he ran the near-monopoly state electricity generator for another seven years, so he can be called the prime architect of that nation’s substantive nuclear energy sector. He was intellectually as sharp as any of the global pioneers in this field.

Yet he greatly underestimated the competitive strength of United States power reactors in competition with British reactors. Here he is in early 1957, writing to the head of one of the four new British reactor-building consortia about competing for a sale in Italy:

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.

In the event, the British did secure one reactor order in Italy (as against America’s two orders), and even one in Japan, but thereafter were trounced by their transatlantic great rivals. Simply put, English reactors were too big and hence too expensive.

Of course hindsight is a dangerous privilege. No one in the United Kingdom then doubted the strength of the domestic Magnox gas-cooled reactor design in the global marketplace (although a couple of the new consortia did float the idea of including the American LWR (light water reactor) design in their product line-ups). And many in the United States feared British competition. Hinton merely reflected the wisdom of the day, wrong though it proved to be. (It’s for that reason I’m not using the above quote in my book.)

Berkeley nuclear plant