Friday 7 October 2016

The UK government’s decision to approve the new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point after a short review has put energy policy firmly back in the news. When the review was announced I had a small hope that the government would show courage and cancel the project but I can only assume that fighting the French on the two fronts of Brexit and Hinkley (whilst simultaneously upsetting the Chinese), was a step too far even for Theresa May.

Not that anyone really needs reminding but here are the salient points about the Hinkley project:

  • The project uses unproven technology.
  • The other two projects using the same technology (in Finland and France) are massively over-budget and years late compared to the original programme.
  • The French version has been diagnosed with serious “anomalies” in its pressure vessel and the French nuclear safety agency won’t even make a decision on what to do about this until the end of the year.
  • It relies on a fixed electricity price far above the wholesale power price.
  • It will generate / maintain jobs – but mainly in the ailing French nuclear industry.
  • It puts major infrastructure under the potential control of China.
  • The UK government is providing a guarantee to French and Chinese investors.
  • The future Chinese reactors they have been promised use even less proven technology – effectively making us the guinea pigs for a Chinese nuclear technology.
  • At best it won’t be on-line until 2026 – (anyone for a sweepstake on the year it first generates power? answers on a tweet to @DrSteveFawkes or via the website).

Which of those factors make anyone think it is a sensible project?

If we want to produce 7% of the UK electricity from low emissions technology we could achieve the same result much quicker and at much lower cost through a combination of efficiency, flexible gas fired stations, renewables and storage – much faster and at lower cost.

On the much discussed security issue I believe that there really is an issue – handing over control of major energy infrastructure to a foreign power, one that quite frankly has a dubious track record in lots of ways, at best reduces the degrees of freedom we have in any future strategic dispute. I thought the Chinese Ambassador’s protests were a classic case of “he doth protest too much’.

Learning history is really worthwhile if we learn from it – and that applies to both international relations and energy. On Monday evening I attended an event at Chatham House to celebrate my friend Walt Patterson’s 25 years at Chatham House. For anyone not familiar with Walt’s 40 plus years of pioneering energy work go straight to his website ( and start reading. Walt reminded everyone of the then Central Electricity Generating Board’s plans in the 1970s to order 18 new reactors. (Walt was in the room when it was announced). After many years of delays and wasted public expenditure – including many other grandiose plans to massively expand nuclear power – we ended up with just one new reactor – Sizewell B. My guess is history will repeat itself and we will end up with another one-off white elephant paid for by the taxpayer at great expense.


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Dr Steven Fawkes

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