Power Failure

Yes, we are pro-nuclear, but the proposed Hinkley C plant should be scrapped.

By George Monbiot, Mark Lynas and Chris Goodall. Published in the Guardian 18th September 2015

Our conversion to the cause of nuclear power was painful and disorienting. All of us carried a cost in changing our position, antagonising friends and alienating colleagues. But we believe that shutting down – or failing to replace – our primary source of low carbon energy during a climate emergency is a refined form of madness.

Because atomic energy provides a steady baseload of electricity, it has great potential to balance the output from renewables, aiding the total decarbonisation of the power supply. The dangers associated with nuclear power have been wildly exaggerated, all too often with the help of junk science. Climate breakdown presents a far greater hazard to human life. The same goes for the air pollution caused by burning coal.

Now, however, we are about to antagonise a different faction, by arguing that the UK’s only proposed nuclear power plant, Hinkley C in Somerset, should not be built.

Hinkley C bears all the distinguishing features of a white elephant: overpriced, overcomplicated and overdue. The delay that was announced recently should be the final straw. The government should kill the project.

The new delay should not surprise anyone who’s aware of the technological issues. Tony Roulstone, who runs the masters programme in nuclear engineering at Cambridge University, argues that the plan for Hinkley C is like “building a cathedral within a cathedral”. It is, he concludes, “unconstructable”.

Attempts to build to the same design – the European Pressurised Reactor – are underway at two other European sites, Olkiluoto in Finland and Flamanville in Normandy. Olkiluoto, where construction began in 2005, was supposed to have been finished by 2009. Now the promoters say it should be ready by 2018, but even that is not guaranteed.

The design is so complex that at one point 5000 workers were on site. The workers had to be drawn from all over northern Europe; communication problems have been so severe that different teams appear to have been building to different specifications.

Its costs have more or less quadrupled. Already the plant is bogged down in lawsuits, as the different contracting parties blame each other for the delays and costs.

Work at Flamanville began in 2007, with the promise that it would be finished by 2012. Now it won’t be completed until 2018 – all being well. The costs have risen – so far – threefold.

The European Pressurised Reactor is a proven design all right – a proven formula for chaos.

So how do the operators, the French company EdF, expect Hinkley C – even if it can be built – to be economically viable? By extracting from the government a price guarantee of £92.50 per megawatt hour for the electricity it produces, index-linked for 35 years.

This is simply astronomical. It is more than twice the current wholesale price of electricity, and more than the government is now paying for solar power, whose costs are expected to fall greatly during the lifetime of the nuclear plant. Against current prices, the government’s guarantee represents a subsidy of over £1 billion a year.

One of the reasons that the cost is so high is that the plant is being built with private cash, on the expectation of a 15% return. This is a classic example of market fundamentalism trouncing value for money. If the government were building this plant, it could borrow at 2.5% across 30 years.

It’s not as if the risk is wholly born by the investors anyway. The government is underwriting much of the cost of the project through its infrastructure guarantee scheme. If the project fails, it could mean that taxpayers had to cover £17bn of the £24.5bn construction cost.

EDF argues that as it learns from experience elsewhere, the cost of construction will come down. But the problem with the design is that these plants have to be built almost entirely on site, so each power station is, in effect, a one-off. The costs of technology fall when modular construction is possible: turning out identical units in a factory.

But perhaps the greatest problem Hinkley C imposes is energy blight. As the project is delayed, the power it would otherwise have generated is likely to be supplied instead by fossil fuel plants. If it does indeed turn out to be unconstructable, the result is likely to be a panicked scramble back into gas and even, perhaps, coal.

We urge the government to scrap this plant, and to use the money promised to its investors to accelerate the deployment of other low carbon technologies, both renewable and nuclear. We would like to see the government produce a comparative study of nuclear technologies, including the many proposed designs for small modular reactors, and make decisions according to viability and price, rather than following the agenda of the companies which have its ear.

Some fourth-generation designs, if governments are prepared to invest in sufficient research and development, could answer three needs at once: for low carbon energy, energy security and the disposal of nuclear waste. But Hinkley C commits us to 20th-Century technologies for much of the 21st.

Yes, we are still pro-nuclear. But not at any price.