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Nuclear power is turning out badly: why is the government clinging to it?

Warning sign with radioactive symbol and nuclear power plant on the coastThe news for nuclear gets worse every day. The latest news 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?


  1. James Martin says:

    But it is not a failed technology, and to claim that is simply ridiculous. A small amount of nuclear power stations contribute a significant amount of energy production in the UK. In some Scandinavian countries the proportion of energy from nuclear is even higher.

    And nuclear is low-carbon, making it an important element in producing energy that does not increase greenhouse gasses. It is also, despite the potential dangers, statistically extremely safe.

    That does not mean everything is fine when it comes to nuclear. There are two reasons for this. This first is that both Tories and New Labour privatised large segments of what was once a highly regulated state industry, meaning that now private energy providers use it to milk government subsidies for their own profits. And where the quest for profit rises, safety almost always falls.

    Next there is the question of waste, which is indeed the only credible argument that can be used against nuclear. But there is a balance here, and a context. And right now that balance and context is that renewable energy is still not yet good or consistent enough, and the alternatives are all a significant risk to global warming. And that leaves nuclear as an essential energy option that should not be written off – and it is indeed the reason why growing numbers of environmentalists and organisations are dropping their own opposition to it. Time you did the same, Michael!

  2. Robert says:

    What we need is to ensure we have nuclear powered wind turbines. Then when they all go we can move and fly around the universe, with David Miliband in thunder bird five.

    We need to have power wind Turbines may sound and look like it great it’s not it poor at producing power the wind does not blow they produce nothing, if it blows to hard it does not produce, and they go down for repairs more often then turbines.

    So we use gas we use Oil and we use power like coal but we should be able to build our own Nuclear plants for god sake have we become that poor and if we have then the Tories and labour are to blame for god sake.

    Sorry but this battle to defeat the Tories is not working to well because labour would have come up with this .

  3. Jim Denham says:

    Nuclear power has to play a part in an environmentally sound energy policy, as George Monboit has been brave enough to recognise. Meacher’s objections owe more to superstation and cold war opposition to the very word “nuclear” than to scientific evidence and a rational assessment of reality.

  4. Barry Ewart says:

    Why don’t The UN just set up a globally publicly owned Global Trust (funded by billions from Govts) to fund solar panel farms in the Worlds deserts to harness the free energy of the sun. An international democratic socialist idea to save the planet. Also free global public transport to help the transport poor and to attract people out of cars to cut CO2 emissions.

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