Why does Britain struggle to build power plants?

A power station we did manage to build: Hinckley Point C. Image: Getty.

Much of Britain’s infrastructure is long past its sell-by date. This is partly down to ineffective financing, a lack of investment, and a government preference for fancy megaprojects over boring-but-crucial things like the energy grid.

History shows, however, that there is another, simpler reason: the neglect of project management, namely, the planning and construction of infrastructure projects. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the UK’s pitiful record with power stations.

Just look at Hinkley Point C. In its desire to avoid British consumers subsidising construction, and its belief that the private sector could simply build a nuclear power plant, the government has effectively handed over project management responsibilities and oversight to French state energy firm EDF. This means it now has little say in or control over any construction problems, the cost of which EDF will recoup through a very generous fixed price for the electricity the plant generates. Under the present arrangement, the British government cannot do much about the fact its flagship nuclear project is already £1.5bn over budget and a year behind schedule.

Failure to ensure that power plants are built on time and on budget goes back much further. In fact, long lead times, engineering problems, cost overruns, and construction delays have been problems in the UK since the early 1960s. A 1963 select committee report on the electricity industry pointed out that it took five years for a station to be commissioned in the UK, compared to two-and-a-half years in the US and just 13 months in Japan. A few years later, the National Board for Prices and Income found that incomplete power stations were costing the taxpayer around £30m a year in annual interest payments alone, roughly £345m in today’s money.

Nuclear power plants were by far the worse. In the mid-1960s, the UK decided to build a series of plants using a British-designed advanced gas cooled reactor (AGR) that had never been built on a commercial scale. Construction was hampered by engineering problems, however. For example, Dungeness B station in Kent, the first AGR station, started construction in 1965 and was meant to be completed within five years. But the station wasn’t connected to the grid until 1983, and didn’t start commercial operation until 1985, 15 years behind schedule.

Berkeley nuclear power station in Gloucestershire, under construction in the late 1950s. Image: Ben Brooksbank/creative commons.

As early as 1969, the Wilson Committee, which was set up to examine the causes of these delays, pointed to inefficient management. Project managers responsible for overseeing construction were either incompetent or had little incentive to speed things up, and the committee recommended more authority should be exerted over them. Its suggestion was echoed that same year by the select committee on science and technology, which argued that inadequate attention on site had led to many breakdowns of power station generators.


The problem was the government did not take much heed of these recommendations. Records held at The National Archives from this period show there was little urgency among civil servants or politicians to rectify the situation. Nuclear energy was considered crucial to Britain’s energy security and industrial strategy, but much less importance was placed on ensuring that the nuclear plants were built on time. Roy Mason, minister of power in the late 60s, went so far as to obstruct the construction of a nuclear power plant to appease the National Union of Mineworkers. In fact, there seemed little realisation within government that a key to successful infrastructure project lay in efficient project management – and the the ability to construct on budget and on time.

The ConversationHinkley shows that this same tendency to overlook the importance of project management still exists today. It’s just one aspect of infrastructure policy, of course. But until the government starts making project management more of a priority there is no guarantee the UK will get its infrastructure right. Funds and financing are important – but what actually happens on construction sites is equally, if not even more, crucial.

Tae Hoon Kim is a researcher in energy politics at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.