On 21st October, the government confirmed the long-predicted news that Britain’s nuclear power programme would be entering a period of major expansion, kicked off by the building of a new pressurised water reactor at the Hinkley site on the north Somerset coast. The 3,200 megawatt Hinkley Point C twin-reactor will be the first new nuclear plant to be built in Britain for two decades.
At any time, this would be an appalling decision, contrary to the wealth of evidence stacked up on the issues of cost, health risks, the environment, safety and sustainability. In a post-Fukushima world, increasing dependence on the nuclear generation of electricity would appear to represent the complete meltdown of reason.
As the result of a deal struck between the British government and an international consortium of companies, headed by French power supplier EDF, the enormous construction costs (estimated at around £16bn) will be outsourced to the private sector. Under the contract, EDF secured extremely lucrative terms; with the coalition guaranteeing that a future government will pay a minimum of twice the current market rate (known as the ‘strike price’) for every megawatt hour produced when the station comes on-stream in 2023.
Many industry analysts suggest that this figure hugely inflates the likely wholesale cost of electricity ten years from now, ensuring fat profit margins for the EDF consortia. Ministers crowed that Hinckley C would be built “without spending a pound of taxpayers’ money”: a ridiculous assertion given that every penny of the construction costs will be met by domestic bill-payers a decade from now. The locked-in thirty-year contract should generate the plant’s owners a return of more than £80bn.
Responsibility for paying for the future decommissioning of Hinkley C has been handed to the consortium, but EDF and their partners will only have to meet what the coalition obliquely calls “a share of the costs of waste management”. Dealing effectively with huge quantities of hazardous radio- active waste is a challenge which continues to elude nuclear technologists more than 50 years on from the birth of the industry. In the end, the risks and costs of all attempted ‘waste solutions’ will not be borne by EDF. It does appear though that the consortia are evaluating the use of the Hinkley site as a permanent large-scale nuclear waste dump; which would enable them to offer ‘cut-price’ rented storage on-site.
Hinkley A (an obsolete Magnox power station) was shut down in 2000, following the discovery of reactor problems which would have been prohibitively costly to fix. Hinkley B was due to be decommissioned (at public expense) in 2016, at the end of its 40-year lifespan; until a new survey concluded that the plant could be run safely (and at profit) for a further ten years. That safety report was commissioned by the plant’s current owners, EDF, but a decade’s delay in dealing with the intractable headaches of decommissioning this second Hinkley plant also suits the current government’s purposes.
The disaster which crippled the Fukushima nuclear plant (wrecked in the devastating tsunami which struck Japan in March 2011), further undermined public support for the ‘nuclear option’ right across the globe. But although interest in renewable and alternative energy sources continues to grow, the anti- nuclear lobby in the UK is weaker than it was back in the 1970s and 1980s.
The announcement of the Hinkley C go- ahead was met with a dishearteningly muted response. In the area around Hinkley Point the small but vociferous ‘Stop Hinkley’ pressure group has kept up a vigil of opposition to the development of the new reactor. In rallying resistance, the group has faced the acute problem of the power station’s status in the local economy. Often when plans are announced to site an ‘unpopular’ facility near to residential areas NIMBY (‘Not In My Back Yard’) campaigns emerge to press for its relocation ‘anywhere else’. In north Somerset, the position is more complex.
From the late 1950s onwards, the construction and expansion of the original
Hinkley site was the engine for the revival of a rural area no longer able to rely on agri- culture, mining or fishing. Building power generation at Hinkley pulled in contractors, developers, engineers and construction workers, and boosted the order books of existing local suppliers and tradesmen as the population mushroomed.
Many local residents keenly support the renewed extension of the Hinkley site, not out of any particular enthusiasm for nuclear power, but from the expectation that (despite the risks) the project will bring jobs and money to an area where both are in short supply.
What has made it easier for EDF to smother the voices of the opposition is the large discretionary funds that they have been handing out in the area for several years. Cash-strapped councils have found themselves able to win funding for local projects that would be simply unaffordable otherwise. Many councillors have found such thinly-disguised bribery very difficult to resist.
At the same time, not all of the arguments put forward by the local anti-nuclear lobby deserve support. A lot of Stop Hinkley’s campaign materials focus on the fact that the development will be owned by ‘foreign companies’ – as if it matters, in an era of transnational capital, where the headquarters of the profiteers are located. Such regressive comments undermine the case against nuclear power, by conceding the idea that ‘British-owned’ nuclear plants would somehow be more acceptable.