The proposed nuclear development at Hinkley point in Somerset is once again in troubled waters following news that shares in the French state owned reactor vendor Areva have plummeted by almost a quarter. The company is the only one that can construct the proposed EPR reactor, as well as owning 10% equity in the project. Areva faces legal battles, vast cost escalations and delays of up to 10 years at its current new build projects in Finland and France, for the same reactor type destined for Hinkley. Regarding investment in the Somerset site, majority state owned utility EDF are said to have “balked” at the demands of Chinese state-owned companies China General Nuclear Corporation and China National Nuclear Corporation. Thus negotiations have also begun with Saudi Arabian state owned company Saudi Electric to invest in the Hinkley project. Costs have risen from initial estimates of £10 billion, to £14 billion, to 16 billion, and most recently, the European Commission recommended factoring in potential costs of £24 billion for the construction of the two proposed reactors at Hinkley point. This is all based on the presumption of a 2023 start-up date. However, also reported today, UK Government is said to be conducting a ‘secret’ review into the Hinkley project amidst fears that the 2023 start-up date is a pipe dream.
I began my PhD on democracy in UK energy policy back in 2009 and today I’ve been recalling the often-forgotten initial justifications for much of the Hinkley project. I recall that EDF negotiated a historic speeding up of the UK planning system when they were allowed to conduct ‘preliminary works’ on the Hinkley site through local planning procedures at the District level – prior to permission being granted to construct a nuclear reactor. Or as the late Crispin Aubrey described it, ‘putting in the foundations before having permission to build the house’. EDF admitted that their request was a ‘highly unusual’ one (EDF, 2010a) but nevertheless ‘necessary’ as it was in “in response to exceptional national need” (EDF, 2010b), and that the “programme is for the new power station to commence operation in 2018.” (ibid) What is more, part of that justification was that “…accelerating the completion date of Hinkley Point C by twelve months would result in a saving of approximately twelve million tonnes of carbon dioxide, which would otherwise be emitted from power stations burning fossil fuels” (ibid). Indeed, as Vincent de Rivaz, CEO of EDF UK, famously declared, “Some people would be cooking their Christmas Turkeys with power from Hinkley C.”
Today’s news may be more a case of chickens coming home to roost rather than Turkeys being cooked however. There could well be a Hinkley-sized hole constituting 7% of future UK electricity capacity that was originally to be filled in three years’ time. Prominent pro-nuclear environmentalists have referred to the German Energiewende that involves an abandonment of nuclear as “utter madness”. One wonders the view from Germany as its share of renewables continues to rise, looking towards the UK as it attempts to construct new EPR reactors as a valid choice to deal with the urgency of climate change; a reactor that many industry experts and enthusiasts admit is likely never to be attempted for construction again as it is so problematic, a reactor that is billions over budget and 10 years behind schedule in Finland, 5 in France, and with delays now confirmed in China: ‘Does this constitute sanity then?’ may be the question.
Of course, nuclear is low carbon, and who knows, maybe it will be completed by the revised start-up date 2023. I’d be interested to see the odds at the bookies however. What is clear though is that we need to be realistic about nuclear power: the constant complaining that a seemingly infinitely powerful force of ‘irrational environmentalists’ has prevented the most uniquely state-subsidized and ring-fenced technologies from prospering as it should, needs to give way to a balanced debate that acknowledges through observing the Hinkley C story, the fact that despite the UK Government doing virtually everything in its power to make the development happen, it is still in doubt. Questions related to the role of the state, and political-economic and democratic issues become far more pertinent to a proper evaluation of the practicalities of various technological options than the singular focus that permeates a lot of UK energy debate: it’s big, it’s low carbon, and therefore it must happen.
But back to Hinkley C: what if the worst case scenario regarding nuclear financing occurs and Areva pulls out of the Hinkley project, and we will not be able to cook our Christmas Turkeys from that corner of Somerset? You’d think there would be a back up plan: think again. In the words of Vincent de Rivaz, “There is no alternative to security of supplies, there is no Plan B to keep the lights on, there is no alternative to tackle climate change, there is no Plan B to remove CO2 emissions.”
There you have it. A power station that is in serious danger of never being built, and for which there is no plan B.
Dr Philip Johnstone is a Research Fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit and a member of The Sussex Energy Group.
EDF (2010a) Site preparation works: planning statement [Online] November, 2010.
EDF (2010b) Environmental statement: statement of need [Online] November, 2010.
Note: these are no longer available online.
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