First UK nuclear power station for 20 years, Hinkley Point C, dealt huge setback by government

The £18bn Hinkley Point C nuclear project has been dealt a hammer blow by the UK government.

The construction of the first nuclear power plant on British soil for twenty years has stalled after Teresa May’s new cabinet opted to put off signing the contracts, which were due to be signed on Friday (July 29).

Hinkley was given the last green light by the state-owned French Energy Giant EDF, whose board approved the project earlier in the week in spite of French trade unions warning it could ruin the company’s finances.

It was anticipated to be the final hurdle in the planning stage, with one third of the funding coming from the Chinese company CGN.

The two are expected to collaborate on further nuclear projects in Sizewell (Suffolk) comprising of more state of the art water pressurised EPR reactors, and Bradwell (Essex) which will feature a Chinese design.

Nervousness about Chinese involvement in critical infrastructure may have been a factor in the government’s last-minute decision, which was set to see the commissioning of around 25,000 jobs.

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Sizewell nuclear power stations – two nuclear power stations located near the small fishing village of Sizewell in Suffolk

Assuming it still goes ahead, the plant, in Somerset, will consist of two EPR reactors, which heat water under high pressure to drive a turbine.

The reactors produce very large amounts of power, a combined 3.2 GW, which alone will account for 7% of the UK’s energy generation when they come online in 2025.  

While the plant would be good news in terms of reducing carbon emissions, a goal that becomes ever more important in view of the unprecedented temperatures witnessed over the first six months of the year, it would be an understatement to call the project controversial.

One of EDF’s directors has resigned in view of the board’s decision to proceed, as did its finance director who resigned in March, citing spiralling costs and the risk of bankruptcy.

Areva, the designer of the EPR, had to be bailed out by the French government earlier this year.

While mismanagement and the cooling of political feeling towards nuclear power post-Fukushima has played a part in that, a large factor is the sheer complexity of the EPR design.

Its desirable features, including high degrees of safety and efficiency, come at large cost and with the relative novelty, supply chains are not yet well established.

Last year, the EPR under construction in Flamanville, France, encountered a massive setback when the steel for a critical component was found to be flawed.

In Finland, the EPR at Olkiluoto is nine years behind schedule and three times over budget.

With this in mind, the UK government will have to agree to pay over double the current market rate for electricity for 35 years for Hinkley C’s capabilities – £92.50 per unit of electricity generated – a deal that has drawn considerable criticism.

Should the process fail at any step, the taxpayer will be stuck with a bill of £18bn with nothing to show for it.

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Greg Clark – Former Secretary of State for the Department for Communities and Local Government (May 2015 – July 2016) and now Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy 

In response to the government’s decision, the new energy secretary, Greg Clark, said: “The UK needs a reliable and secure energy supply and the government believes that nuclear energy is an important part of the mix.

“The government will now consider carefully all the component parts of this project and make its decision in the early autumn.”

Drastic action is certainly needed to fight climate change, and the official noises coming from the government suggest this blow is unlikely to result in the cancellation of the project as a whole.

Nonetheless, this puzzling move does not do much to instill confidence in the already blighted venture.

Time will tell whether this marks a policy change from an administration already under fire for its attitude towards climate issues.

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