Once again, the construction of the world’s most expensive building ever to be planned has been delayed, this time at the behest of the new UK government. Hinkley Point C, the at least £24 billion nuclear power station, like HS2, like airport expansion, like Crossrail 2; in fact, like every major infrastructure project Britain has ever tried to undertake, has been kicked into the long grass. Again.
A decade after the initial proposal and just a year before the project should have been completed we are still not even passed the contract signing stage to lay the first, let alone last, brick. The questions have to be asked – will it ever get built, and also, should it?
The area around Hinkley Point has been home to a nuclear power plant since 1965 with around 1,000 local residents employed at the site, many businesses relying on subsidiary contracts and a pledge of a further 5,600 new construction jobs if Hinkley C was ever constructed . This, combined with a perfect safety record, led to public opinion in the area being supportive, gaining backing from the local MP and local councillors. Opinion polling by IPSOS/MORI found in 2013 that just one in five people opposed building new nuclear power stations.
But opinion polling and jobs and historic safety records are only part of the equation. This isn’t a new Tesco – this is a project that will take hundreds of thousands of years to completely finish. Wider issues have to be examined.
Widespread concerns include the protection levels given to Hinkley against tsunamis, earthquakes, extreme weather, rising sea levels and meteor strike (unlikely but if it happens as it did in Japan then Britain is screwed completely); fears of terrorism or nuclear material theft; environmental concerns regarding accidents, spills or the quality of discharged cooling water into the Sea; the collapse of the entire national grid if the reactor does break down; the over reliance on one reactor for so much electricity and the need to maintain power to the cooling systems.
Oh, and then there is the ability of the Hinkley site to store spent fuel safely, the A39 being the only evacuation road from Hinkley in an emergency, the out-of-date design of the third generation plant being proposed, the disruption to local people from the building programme, the ownership of the plant being in foreign hands and the lack of plans to employ local people.
And then there is the financial stability of EDF – the French company that is meant to build the thing with the Chinese, the longer term political relations with our South East Asian comrades, the ludicrously high price for the electricity it may eventually produce, the guarantees and sweeteners offered to EDF to construct the reactor, the storage of nuclear waste at the site, the ongoing huge related costs of housing the waste materials and our old friend Brexit Uncertainty.
The last one is particularly pertinent. Does this delay herald a government that actually takes note of experts? Just last week, the head chap at the National Audit Office warned that some of the plans for massive infrastructure projects like Hinkley would need to be shelved as UK Plc would not be able to afford to do them all not that Britain has voted out of the EU. This is the most costly, most delayed and least rational of all of them both economically, socially and environmentally.
So all of that would scream out cancel the project. Yet it isn’t so easy. The nuclear option is clearly favoured by politicians of all hues – after all they only just voted renew our commitment to housing nuclear weapons of mass destruction on our soil – so why would nuclear power generation be any different? This is especially the case since so many civil service posts are filled with secondees from British Nuclear Fuels. And, in a weird twist, it is also seen by many in office as a stopgap to help Britain meet its’ commitment to cutting CO2 emissions.
Post Brexit, so many politicians have used that awful cliched phrase that ‘Britain is still open for business’. So what does this postponement and then cancellation say about whether it is? Two major economic powerhouses that the UK needs on its’ side have just had two royal fingers waved in their direction. They played the British game and now they are still being told to jog on. That really doesn’t look or feel good for long term post EU relations. It just isn’t cricket old boy.
Then there is the big question of what is plan B? Time is running out on the existing electricity generating plants and finding another way to replace nigh on 7% of the UK’s entire megawattage is a gargantuan ask. It’s like just at kicking out time at the local nightclub you finally pull the girl you have been after all night, got her coat, about to take her back to your place only to then think that there will be someone better left inside the event. But when you get back there all there is left are grumpy bouncers and people being sick on the floor and fighting.
We can’t do coal or oil or gas or fracking – that would break our own laws that our own government set itself to cut carbon emissions. Solar or wind or wave technology just is not quite developed enough to fill the void. It might be if Britain put all hands to these pumps and all the money Hinkley would have cost to developing such technology and sold it to the rest of the planet. But, sadly that it just not how either Britain, Parliament or the Tories work. We muddle through hoping the lights won’t go off. We keep stiff upper lip and our chin up. Even if that chin is in the dark at the time.
So, whilst anyone with a mild brain would struggle on so many levels to be in favour of such a magnificent white elephant, the big unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable question – is what else would or should the country do at this late stage? The markets, multi-national corporations and the huge nuclear lobby will ensure that this massive gamble will be undertaken despite all the worries. But, if you have an alternatibe, then answers on a postcard to Mrs T. May, 10 Downing Street.