Elliot Wilson

The nuclear power-dresser

Elliot Wilson meets Barbara Judge, the American-born doyenne of British boardrooms, who believes we should strive to regain our lost leadership of the global nuclear industry

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Barbara Judge is an extraordinary human being, particularly for those of us who struggle to iron a shirt. Apart from her flawless grooming — in a power suit with a starched ruff, she resembles a cross between Marie Antoinette and Jessica Tandy — she has more titles than most monarchs. Lady Judge, a British-American dual citizen married to philanthropist Sir Paul Judge, sits on boards on both sides of the Atlantic, chairs the School of Oriental and African Studies, and is a trustee of the Royal Academy.

Her past is no less impressive. In 1980, the then Barbara Thomas became the youngest-ever head of the US Securities and Exchange Commission. By 2007, she was reported to hold no fewer than 30 directorships. And for the past five years, she has chaired the UK Atomic Energy Authority, the state-owned body vested with dismantling our ageing nuclear plants and, since 2006, providing expertise on building new ones. Sitting in the bland offices of a Mayfair private equity firm (she’s not a director, surprisingly, just a friend of the owner) the nuclear chief is hotly vocal — even slightly offended — at the state of the UK nuclear industry. When she came over here in 1993, she points out, ‘more than 20 per cent of our energy was delivered by nuclear power. But if we keep decommissioning, then by 2020 just 2 per cent of our power will be delivered by nuclear. And no one’s told me that we will need 18 per cent less power by then.’

Britain recently cashed in some of its important nuclear assets. In 2006, British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL) sold its two most valuable divisions, BNFL USA and Westinghouse Electric UK, for $5.4 billion. At the time, BNFL was widely considered to have pulled off a coup by ridding itself of twin burdens. Toshiba, the buyer, was accused of overpaying for outdated technology. Yet in hindsight the Westinghouse sale stands comparison with Gordon Brown’s misguided sell-off of gold at the market’s nadir in 1999. In recent years the nuclear industry has staged a startling comeback, buoyed by high oil prices. New reactors are being built in 11 countries, including Russia, China and Abu Dhabi, with up to 70 more to come by 2025 in the likes of Italy and Jordan. Some of these projects would undoubtedly have involved BNFL, notably those in Jordan and Abu Dhabi, where Britain has strong links. Instead they will be built by one or more of Canada’s CANDU, Toshiba’s Westinghouse, a Russo-German alliance involving Rosatom and Siemens, and state-controlled Areva of France — for which President Sarkozy acts as de facto head of sales.

If there’s a model to follow, it is the French one. In 1974, President Giscard d’Estaing organised a Cabinet away-day. In the wake of the first global energy crisis, the goal was to find ways to wean France off Arab oil. What they came up with was in part a typically French exercise in chauvinistic propaganda. Giscard went on television to say the French were ‘special’ people who should not be reliant on foreign resources. Instead, the aim would be to build dozens of nuclear plants — and any town that agreed to provide a site would be given lavish state aid. Not only did the plan work blindingly well — four fifths of French energy needs are now provided by 59 nuclear plants — but it also ensured that France would continue to train thousands of highly qualified nuclear engineers.

‘We in Britain should be leading the nuclear power industry, because we have such a glorious past,’ notes Judge. ‘When I was young, the smartest graduates would want to become nuclear engineers or physicists. Now, the dream is to do an engineering undergrad, then an MBA, then to get shipped off to a bank to become an energy analyst.’  

One of the unenviable parts of Judge’s job is to sell nuclear to a doubting public. Plants such as Sellafield have been targets for angry campaigners since the 1970s. Nuclear became seen as outdated, dangerous, expensive; its place in the pecking order usurped by renewable energy sources that harnessed sun, wind and tide. Indeed, nuclear is rarely mentioned as a ‘renewable’ — oddly, since it is carbon-free, as well as reducing dependence on volatile Middle Eastern oil states and the capricious gas giant, Russia. Judge notes, ‘With the best will in the world, renewables aren’t going to deliver enough to fill the gap that would be left by nuclear. Solar works when the sun is shining and wind power when the wind blows, but nuclear works whatever the weather.’

Despite all this, nuclear power still employs 80,000 people directly and indirectly, according to the Nuclear Industry Association, and contributes £3.3 billion to UK GDP. And unlike Germany or Spain, where it remains politically unpalatable, in recent years the industry has had tentative backing from Blair and Brown, bolstered by cross-party support from Alan Duncan and John Hutton. The French group EDF, having bought British Energy in January for £12.5 billion, plans to build four new reactors here by 2017. Other nuclear plants are planned by German and Spanish investors, and Scottish and Southern Energy.

To be sure, the nuclear issue still divides opinion sharply. Judge admits that a repeat of the Chernobyl disaster would close the industry down for 20 years. But she also notes that just 3,500 people died in the world’s worst nuclear accident, fewer than perish each year in British road accidents. The UK is slowly waking to a new era of nuclear power. Manchester university, for example, is investing £25 million in training a new generation of nuclear engineers — many of whom will end up in British firms such as Babcock and Rolls-Royce, pitching for new reactor projects around the world. ‘We’re hoping our industry is considered every time a new reactor is built,’ says Barbara Judge. ‘We can help with safety, site selection, construction services, maintenance — and prove that we are the most competent people to plan and build a project anywhere.’ If there’s anyone who can propel Britain from laggard to leader in an industry it once dominated, it is this American-born Lady in her atomically starched ruff.