The news for nuclear gets worse every day. The latest news today is that the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant in Somerset, the government’s flagship nuclear project is near the point of collapse. After Ed Davey, the LibDem secretary of state (there was a time before they joined the government in 2010 that the LibDems were solidly against nuclear) waved through the most expensive power station in history, and then the EU Commission suspiciously decided that the huge financial concessions (bribes?) offered to EDF did not mysteriously constitute an illegal state aid, it now looks as though Areva, the French designer of the reactor and the only company that can provide the equipment, is in a state of free fall. Areva was already building two reactors, one at Olkiluoto in Finland and the other at Flamanville in France. Both have been a disaster, massively behind schedule and over budget. As a result Areva has been forced to suspend all its profit predictions and its shares have crashed nearly a quarter. Can Hinkley Point C survive? If not, the government’s whole energy policy is in deep trouble.
Even if it still goes ahead, it will probably only be after further big government (i.e. taxpayer) sweeteners are written secretly into the deal. But even if it had gone ahead as intended, it would still have been a massive white elephant. The EU Commission predicted the cost at £25bn, compared to the cost of £14bn that Davey had given to the Commons (can you trust anything that a minister or Whitehall spokesman says nowadays?). Even that EU estimate was predicated on it being built by 2023, 6 years later than originally mooted, and vedry unlikely to be met given the Olkiluoto and Flamanville experience.
We now learn also that the other end of the nuclear process is also turning out to be vastly more expensive than was ever contemplated at the outset. The IES has estimated that the bill for closing down and cleaning up the world’s ageing nuclear reactors will exceed $100bn over the next 25 years alone. In the past 40 years only 10 reactors have been closed down, but in the next 25 almost 200 are due to be shut down, with huge uncertainties in decommissioning costs and with governments’ limited experience in safely dismantling nuclear plants. In the UK the bill for cleaning up Sellafield and the other 16 reactors that are due to be shut down by 2023, recently put at £75bn, has now escalated to £110bn. There is moreover the still unresolved question of how to dispose of radioactive nuclear waste: some 60 years after the first nuclear power plant started operation, no country in the world has yet opened a permanent disposal facility for commercial high-level waste. So what does the Tory government cling on to such a failed technology at such inordinate expense?