Second thoughts on Hinkley

THE possibility of a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point on Somerset’s north coast has been swirling around for years and those of us who have misgivings (to put it mildly) about the enormous cost of this untried technology have kept hoping that it would never happen.

Hinkley C, as it is known, would be the third nuclear reactor at the site and would be a twin-unit European Pressurised Reactor. Hinkley A was a Magnox plant and is now closed and Hinkley B is an AGR (advanced gas reactor), due to be closed in 2023, although this is likely to be considerably delayed.

The state-owned French company EDF first announced its intention to build Hinkley C in 2008. The subsequent eight years have been an off-again on-again roller-coaster, with EDF in dire financial difficulties and constant controversy over the total cost, the long-term investment required by British tax-payers and the involvement of the Chinese (in the form of the state-owned CGN company). The cost of Hinkley C is said to be £18 billion (£24.5 billion including the financing costs.) The National Audit Office has estimated that the total cost to consumers will be nearly £30 billion.

On the plus side, construction of Hinkley C is expected to support 5,600 jobs, with the project as a whole creating 25,000. Once it is fully operational it is estimated that the reactor will generate seven per cent of the UKs energy usage.

After all the delays, in July EDF announced that it would sign the contract. Everything (including a lavish multi-national banquet) was ready for the signing ceremony on 28th July, when out of the blue Greg Clark, Theresa May’s newly appointed Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, announced that the government would not sign the contract as expected, but was delaying the decision until the autumn to “consider carefully all the component parts of this project.”

Predictably the rumour mill went into overdrive with suggestions that Theresa May had always been unhappy about the deal, and that she had disliked George Osborne and his enthusiasm to do business with the Chinese.

Molly Scott-Cato, the Green MEP for the South West, an economist and life-long green campaigner, says Hinkley is too risky. She has called on the government to abandon the project now and “invest instead in green energy which can deliver energy security more quickly, more cheaply and provide thousands more quality jobs.”

Commentators – political and industrial – have speculated on the likelihood of anything new emerging from a few more weeks consideration and arguments have been put forward for alternative long-term solutions to Britain’s energy needs.

Simon Jenkins, in The Guardian, described Hinkley C as “the product of prestige, political vanity, diplomatic machismo and corporate lobbying.” He condemned it as “the worst deal in the history of procurement,” claiming that David Cameron had “stuffed the pockets of the French and Chinese with gold … from future British taxpayers and energy consumers.”

Jenkins suggests that the money saved by not going ahead with Hinkley C should be invested in reducing demand and developing renewables. In the meantime Britain must switch to gas while drastically reducing demand. He is dismissive of other green solutions such as carbon capture, as “futurology or dodging the issue.”

Advocates of Hinkley C and the proposed EPR claim that it will have the industry’s most cutting-edge technology, and is designed to be safer, more reliable and more fuel efficient than anything that has gone before.

On the other hand, not only is there no operational EPR reactor anywhere in the world, but the proposed Flamanville nuclear plant in France is six years behind schedule and millions over budget, and the Olkiluoto reactor planned in Finland is nearly a decade behind and three times over budget.

It is not an encouraging picture – even if you can swallow the unpalatable idea of investment in key British infrastructure by communist China with its appalling human rights record and evident global ambitions.

There are, of course, some strong advocates for nuclear power, notably 97 year old James Lovelock, the Dorset-based scientist, chemist and author who proposed the Gaia hypothesis.

Lovelock caused a sensation in 2004 when he claimed that “only nuclear power can now halt global warming.” He believes that nuclear energy is the only realistic alternative to fossil fuels, with the capacity both to meet humankind’s energy needs and to reduce greenhouse emissions.

Theresa May has a very hard decision to make. She will be excoriated by the unions, supporters of nuclear energy, many of her own party and big business if she decides to cancel the deal. And she will have an enormous battle on her hands to get broad support for a serious move into renewables – where there are undoubtedly many job opportunities and real business potential for British entrepreneurs.

Whether Hinkley C eventually goes ahead or the government decides to invest in gas in the medium term and renewables in the longer term, it is clear that we will all have to change the way we live in order to make the serious reductions in energy consumption which are required.

Hinkley C at best will be an appallingly expensive stop gap – we should not shut our eyes and pass the problem along to our grandchildren.

Fanny Charles