The UK’s new nuclear reactors: too expensive and not needed

Looking closely at the nuclear industryToday the UK government announced the go ahead for two new nuclear reactors to be built at the Hinkley Point power plant in Somerset, in the country’s south west. It’s very big news – the UK has not built a nuclear reactor in 20 years. 

But before the nuclear industry and its supporters start popping their champagne, and the rest of us begin drowning our sorrows, let’s have a reality check.

The French company EDF plan to build two European Pressurised Reactors (EPR). The EPR is billed by its designer AREVA as a state-of-art third generation reactor that puts all others in the shade. It is the biggest reactor ever designed (if not yet built).

You see, that’s the problem. No-one has yet to successfully built an EPR. Just two are under construction in Europe right now.

The one being built by AREVA at Olkiluoto in Finland is currently seven years late and at least 5.2 billion euros over budget. The other EPR being built at Flamanville in France by EDF is five years late and its cost has rocketed 5.4 billion euros to 8.6 billion. Both reactors have the same long list of safety and construction problems.

Not only that but the EPRs being built in China have had precisely the same construction and safety problems as their French and Finnish cousins.

The industry would say, euphemistically, that the EPR has had a difficult birth. In reality, it’s been something of a nightmare. EDF say the Hinkley Point reactors will be ready by 2023. Personally, I’ll believe it when I see it – and remember EDF are not actually going to take an investment decision until summer of 2014. For all the hype, the decision to go ahead hasn’t happened.

The cost of the Hinkley C project is a nightmare already. The British government, despite promising that no new nuclear reactors would be built with public subsidy, has guaranteed a price for the electricity EDF’s reactors will produce. For 35 years.

That price is twice what the price of electricity is in the UK right now. EDF stands to make big profits from a deal rigged in its favour.

“Ah,” I hear you say, “but what it the price of electricity increases in the future, higher than the price guaranteed to EDF? EDF will make a loss.”

To which I would say, almost certainly not. The agreement has done a great deal to ensure that the consortium’s costs are covered including loan guarantees to ensure lenders get their money back. They don’t depend at all on the power price being right to ensure their returns.

The UK government are insistent that all this is not a massive subsidy to the nuclear industry. That’s not for them to decide. The EDF deal has now to be approved by the European Commission because it involves state aid (that’s a subsidy to me and you). This could be difficult: two weeks ago the Commission signalled that new nuclear projects should qualify for state aid.

As with all nuclear projects, you have to dig through the hype to find the reality. Take the promises on jobs, for example. EDF says the HinkleyPointC project will create 25,000 jobs in Britain.

I’ve been watching the nuclear industry for a long time now and I’ve seen these job promises come and go. In 2009, the then UK government said building a new reactor would employ 9,000-10,000 workers. Where have the other 15,000 jobs come from?

Don’t expect those 25,000 jobs (if they ever exist) to go to British workers. Of the 90 contracts EDF is tendering to build Hinkley Point C, the vast majority will go to overseas companies.

And where is the waste produced by these reactors, which will remain dangerous for millennia, going to go? Nobody knows. In 2007, the UK’s now Prime Minister, David Cameron, said no new nuclear reactors should be built until the issue of disposing of nuclear waste is solved. It hasn’t been solved. So why is the UK producing more of this problem?

In the end, it needn’t and shouldn’t be this way. Right now we’re losing the battle against climate change and nuclear power is on the wrong side because aside from the waste and proliferation risks, the costs of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are falling by the day. In the UK it is expected that both offshore wind and solar power will be cheaper than nuclear by the time Hinkley C comes on line. Energy saving measures have been described as “the cleanest and cheapest energy is the energy that we don’t use”. None of these need price fixing, disingenuous hype or a decade to put in place. They’re ready to go. Right now.

By 2023, if these new reactors are supplying electricity to British consumers, they will be relics – over-priced, uncompetitive dinosaurs that stubbornly resist their own extinction. They’ll find the world has moved on and they’ve been left behind by more evolved species.

via Greenpeace news http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/Blogs/nuclear-reaction/the-uks-new-nuclear-reactors-too-expensive-an/blog/47067/

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