Whatever the question, Hinkley is not the answer

Hinkley: the most expensive project ever built
The massive white elephant of a project

Sixty years ago this month, the “world’s first commercial nuclear power station” opened at Calder Hall, Sellafield. Three years ago the unprecendented promise of a guaranteed, index linked wholesale power price of double the current rates was promised for decades, to keep Hinkley project profitable for French and Chinese developers.  At the same time the unfunded clean up of the site at Sellafield is costing us billions over the next century. How did we get to such a situation when this city is full of energy solutions?

I spent many years developing energy policy for local government nationally. At the Local Government Association we worked hard to get a chapter about the value of local solutions in delivering national energy answers: local programmes to make homes more efficient, generate power, or create initiatives like Bristol Energy Company (which was supported by EU funds).  It’s therefore a sad reflection on how little lasting impact we’ve made overall that the government seems fixated on massive, national ‘megaprojects’ that are meant to solve energy problems.

a folly, a fiasco, and farce

But whatever we think about the need for large scale projects there seems to be little credibility for the proposed reactor project at Hinkley Point C. Whatever the question being asked to me Hinkley is now so obviously a folly, a fiasco, and farce…..It’s amazing that a project like this staggers on (it has been about to get going for several years now). Not only environmental critics, but also business journalists at The Economist, The Financial Times, The Telegraph, and its own developers, almost half the Board of EDF in France, turned against it.

So what might the questions be that I’m challenging?

  • Its cost: it’s a project constantly rising in cost, in fact it’s hard to keep up with the ballooning estimates of its real, whole of life costs, but it’s £billions. And no reactor of this type (EPR) has ever been built on budget;
  • Its claimed completion date: same as cost – no reactor of this type has ever been completed on time, in fact there are only two prototypes of the EPR, in France and Finland, plus a similar one in China, and none are ready or remotely on time.
  • We need it to keep the lights on: in theory there are very narrow reserve margins for power, so when demand rises on a winter evening, and maybe the sun is down and the wind isn’t blowing, we need it. But that’s not a job a nuclear reactor can do. It’s inflexible, it can’t gear up and deliver more power, so it is not designed to fill a gap. A reactor complex can basically only deliver steady, constant amounts of power not deal with the real world where power demand fluctuates from one TV programme to the next. In fact with national electricity demand falling year on year we actually need 8% less power compared to a few years ago than Hinkley is promised to deliver (7% of electricity). When demand fluctuates we have various solutions such as standby gas, hydro power, battery storage, controls on big power demands (switching down high demands via smart controls, supplies that can be interrupted, linked to cheaper costs being promised – the same facility promised for smart meters linked to smart appliances; your fridge could be paused for half an hour while everyone puts the kettle on at 6pm).
  • It’s reliable, whereas renewables are not: not really – the system we have needs resilience to problems, and a single giant power station does not provide a resilient system. If it goes off line our region could be cut off. Whereas the delivered output from a nationally distributed fleet of wind turbines is closely predictable and our grid can manage the gradual fluctuations as depressions and lulls move across the country. (We then move power around via the grid from other regions or across the channel connectors).
  • Aren’t renewables too dear:
    Competing for investment – who now gets the government subsidy

    no they are constantly coming down in price, each year they become more competitive, and on shore wind is now incredibly cheap. Even off short wind is coming down fast, and solar PV is constantly becoming more competitive across the world. These are just a few of the various technologies and others are available too.

  • Aren’t renewables too small to make a difference: they are not small any more – they are cumulative, and being installed across the country in large amounts. They provided 25% of power used last year in fact, and are bringing wholesale power prices down and becoming cost effective in their own right for businesses. Solar PV suits sites with large roofs, like the new Ashton Gate stadium. And the output doesn’t need to be moved around by the grid, they just fill local demands for power when the sun shines.
  • I mentioned the clean up at Sellafield – but haven’t they solved the waste problems now: No: waste management and disposal is still not resolved; creating and processing its fuel causes pollution and adds to health risks;
  • Isn’t it essential to help meet our carbon targets: the construction delivers no output at all for 10-15 years (if ever finished) whereas installing insulation and solar, wind etc create benefits daily that add up as more lofts, roofs, and turbines get installed. In fact the massive construction project makes all our carbon targets worse as for 10-15 years it consumes power and fuel for cement, steel, fuelling, etc with impacts that make climate emissions far worse. so the promised carbon credit takes many decades, whereas each renewable energy or insulation project pays back in months or a couple of years.
  • It’ll mean jobs for our city.
    Solar panels on the Temple Street council building

    But our city is known for its environmental technology sector, with project and technology engineers, wind farm designers with projects all over the world, installers, researchers, and even global renewable energy legal expertise for projects based in the city. We have thousands of experts here, with global opportunities growing all the time. What about work at Hinkley, though. Well its developers EDF have already announced they can secure 4500 jobs in France from the project, and Chinese investors will be expecting to arrive and learn the skills they need from their stake.

  • And in our neighbourhoods – how will it help? Well with dearer power, and resources diverted into the site for decades, I also worry that the growing contribution of local, grassroots projects to helping us switch to a sustainable energy future are now going to find less support from government and a diminished scope to reduce demand, make homes more efficient, and give us all a greater stake in creating solutions.

So as a Green I’m not keen on turning our energy system into one reliant on such a contentious megaproject as this.


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