On June 14 2015, the Financial Times ran a story under a striking but entirely accurate headline: “French reactor problems cast doubt on UK nuclear power plant”.
That article also reported a question that Jonathan Reynolds MP, Labour’s climate change shadow minister, had written to Amber Rudd MP, the new Energy Secretary:
“I am asking you today to admit the (Hinkley C) project will not proceed and inform Parliament what your alternative energy strategy will be.”
Reynolds is correct: the Hinkley Point C (HPC) project is paralysed with at least five severe problems, any one of which would prove very difficult to overcome. Add them together and the project appears doomed.
Areva actions speak volumes: it has halted all site preparation at Hinkley Point C (HPC), dismissed all the workers and closed their offices there. And Areva very recently announced that it will test to destruction the steel dome already constructed and destined for HPC’s reactor pressure vessel.
This means a new HPC dome would have to be recast adding another 2 to 3 years and even more uncertainty to the project. In reality, it’s an implicit acknowledgement by Areva that HPC is unlikely ever to be built.
A litany of disasters
HPC’s construction costs are extremely high – £24.5 billion in 2014 and rising. To sweeten the deal the previous Government had to propose a construction finance guarantee of £10 billion (the FT said £16 billion) towards them. But still, mo one is coming forward with the cash.
The one possible exception is the mooted participation of Chinese Government agencies. But this will only occur if the Chinese Government controls important aspects of the project, and thus a part of UK energy policy: this is unlikely to prove palatable to the UK population.
Another serious problem is that the proposed French constructor AREVA is technically bankrupt and the project owner, French utility Electricité de France is in severe financial difficulties. Both are 84% owned by the French state.
To support HPC the previous Government offered huge operational tariffs – an inflation proofed £92.50 per MWh guaranteed for 35 year, about double the current wholesale tariff for UK electricity. Since then most renewable energy (RE) tariffs have fallen well below this and continue to decrease, in some cases rapidly.
This has given the Austrian and Luxembourg governments and various RE utilities solid legal grounds to challenge the UK’s proposed massive state aid to Hinkley C. This is likely to take 2 to 4 years: even then the Austrian Government has stated it will appeal against any positive decision. Nothing can happen until all these cases are decided: ie, a delay of at least 4 or 6 years.
The four other EPRs under construction in the world are suffering serious technical problems with consequent long delays, budgets spiralling out of control, and legal counterclaims. The two EPRs under construction in Europe (Finland and France) may in fact prove impossible to construct.
The French nuclear regulator, ASN, has announced a “very serious” finding that reactor pressure vessel domes / bottoms of EPR reactors made by Areva at Le Creuset in France are faulty and may need to be replaced.
This includes those for Hinkley C which have already been built at Le Creuset, and will likely need to be recast. And as already noted, Areva will test to destruction one of the two EPR domes destined for HPC – an implicit acknowledgement that the project is doomed.
Similarly, French nuclear inspectors at ASN and IRSN recently warned EdF about multiple faults in crucial safety valves in the Flamanville nuclear reactor – the same model DECC plans to use.
Turning a blind eye to reality
Although Jonathan Reynolds is accurate in his analysis, it remains to be seen whether the Government or the Labour Opposition hierarchy will take notice of these listed realities.
For example, on June 25, DECC Minister Andrea Leadsom stated that EDF anticipated HPC would start in 2023, and that the Government were committed to the next wave of new nuclear projects, hoping to meet 35% of UK power needs from nuclear by 2028. This statement clearly bears little or no relationship to objective reality: charitably speaking, it’s about saving face.
As for the Opposition, in recent years Labour has had very bad form on nuclear, so Reynolds’ letter, though welcome, needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Let’s examine the matter.
Not many are aware that in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, the Labour Party and TUC were anti-nuclear – both weapons and energy. Indeed, up to around 2006, the Labour Government was unenthusiastic about nuclear – preferring renewables and demand reduction measures. The famous 2003 Energy White Paper was quite definitely so.
However in May 2006, this policy was changed overnight by the now disgraced former Prime Minister Blair: he announced that nuclear power was “back with a vengeance”. The precise reasons for his change are unknown. Certainly the reasons he proffered (security and global warming) didn’t stand a moment’s scrutiny.
Whatever the reason, Blair’s volte-face was unopposed by the Labour Party. One contributory factor for Labour’s acquiescence was the evisceration of the Labour-affiliated environmental group SERA (formerly anti-nuclear) orchestrated by Blair supporters in the early 2000s.
Blair’s ‘whiter than white’ government
Another contributory factor needs to be more openly discussed: corruption and/or sleaze (see endnote 1). Since 2006 and indeed before then, there has been a sordid story of senior Labour politicians benefitting personally or via their families from corporate nuclear largesse.
These are listed in the 2014 book (and Ecologist article) by the former Deputy Chair of the Lib-Dems, Donnachadh McCarthy – The Prostitute State – How Britain’s Democracy Has Been Bought.
McCarthy’s list is not exhaustive; other examples could have been cited. Nuclear corruption / sleaze was not limited to the Labour Party, as McCarthy indicts some Lib-Dem and Tory politicians as well, but the Labour list is larger and has a longer history.
To be fair, the noughties (2000s) were a rotten time for moral behaviour in England. During those years, most MPs, the House of Commons, BBC senior management, the Metropolitan Police, the Murdoch press empire, all banks, most insurance and finance companies, various University Vice-Chancellors, junior members of the Royal family, and several large corporations were caught up in corruption scandals of one sort or another.
It often seemed that senior members of the Establishment had gone on a feeding frenzy. Moral standards in politics were rock bottom – even worse than in the 1880s and 1890s, but this provides little excuse for the Labour Party’s behaviour, re nuclear largesse. Just because others act immorally provides no justification for you to do so.
Baleful effect of political power
But there’s another phenomenon: the baleful effect of political power. It seems there’s an iron nuclear law: the closer to political power you are and the longer you have it, the more you become pro-nuclear.
The recent political history of the UK is littered with examples of goodish politicians who were strongly anti-nuclear out of office, becoming strongly pro-nuclear once they reach office. Robin Cook, Peter Hain, Chris (now Lord) Smith, Chris Huhne and Ed Davey come to mind.
Look at the mind-boggling apostasy of the Lib Dems who threw away their decades-long principled opposition to nuclear for a few years of shared political power! It makes you wonder.
Many people have asked why this occurs, ie why do many Governments and politicians support nuclear power despite it being grossly uneconomic, undemocratic, unsustainable and unethical, and with severe problems of weapons proliferation and waste disposal? And it’s an ineffective and uneconomic way to reduce CO2 emissions as well.
It’s a good question which is difficult to answer. In my view, there are many factors one of which may be the pervasive silent influence of nuclear ‘priesthoods’ on civil servants and Ministers. This is according to the analysis of Robert Jungk in his seminal 1979 book The Nuclear State.
Nowadays the UK priesthood consists of senior scientists / managements in Electricité de France, Magnox Electric, NDA, DECC, CoRWM, COMARE, MOD etc who share the same mind-set, and whose expertise and knowledge of the arcane, highly specialised subjects of nuclear physics, nuclear fission, radiation, radioactivity, etc… vastly exceeds that among civil servants and politicians.
According to Jungk, the fact that nuclear scientists and managers exclusively possess this specialised scientific knowledge, the secret formulae and the scientific jargon endows them with the high status, exclusivity and self-importance associated with a priesthood.
Perhaps it’s relevant that the two top politicians in the past 40 years who succeeded in checking the agendas of their nuclear scientists are scientists themselves. Former US President Jimmy Carter (1976-80) who stopped the commercial reprocessing of US nuclear fuel in 1982 was a US Navy nuclear chemist.
And the present German Chancellor, Dr Angela Merkel, who succeeded in diverting Germany’s energy policies away from nuclear towards the renewables, albeit after initial resistance, is a particle physicist.
If so, what’s the lesson for us? The Government and Labour Party need to listen not only to the nuclear scientists from DECC, NDA, EdF etc who are bound to be uncritically supportive of all things nuclear, but also to well-informed scientists knowledgeable about nuclear matters but who have critical insights.
Such scientists do exist: over 60 critically-minded UK scientists on these matters are contained in various UK email lists, but their views have been systematically ignored by UK Governments in recent years.
Labour politicians – sitting on the fence?
Recently, several Labour politicians have spoken out in defence of nuclear power. Caroline Flint MP, the Labour shadow energy secretary, turned mind somersaults by stating that she was opposed to nuclear subsidies, but that HPC’s £16 billion subsidy package was not a subsidy.
Baroness Worthington, Labour’s Energy spokesperson in the Lords has recently written that she supports nuclear for “moral and ethical” reasons. Several scientists have taken her to task for such patent nonsense.
But even she has been getting the wobbles over Hinkley C, as she revealed at the Ecobuild conference in March, saying that the project’s high price was having a “massive destabilising” effect on the energy market. “Intervention in the market has dented confidence, for a contract which has yet to be signed. We have become over-obsessed with the delivery of one project.”
And despite Labour hype, on May 10 2015, Damian McBride, former advisor to Gordon Brown, revealed that Ed Balls had been warned by Treasury mandarins that the costs for Hinkley Point C were “frighteningly out of control”. Balls would have reviewed the spiralling costs with a view to scrapping the project had Labour won the election and he had become Chancellor.
This has not happened, indeed Balls is no longer even an MP. So what’s Labour’s attitude now? It’s hard to say as there are conflicting signals.
One possible influence is the trade union movement: jobs. But does Labour – especially New Labour – give a fig what the unions think? Lip service or worse – condescension – is often the state of their relationship. Two large unions, Unite and GMB, are strongly pro-nuclear, but several others are less convinced and several union-academic initiatives have recently started up seeking to steer unions away from nuclear towards the undoubted jobs bonanza in renewables.
These initiatives point to Germany with over 440,000 direct jobs in renewable energy (RE), compared to fewer than ~30,000 RE jobs and ~20,000 in the nuclear sector here. Many Labour Party and union officials are aware of this but are reluctant to speak out.
Nuclear hegemony in England and Wales
To be fair to them, it’s hard to push against the nuclear hegemony – the political and cultural dominance or authority of nuclear interests – that exists in England and Wales (E&W). As well as Labour and the big unions, the other main political parties, almost all of the media, the civil service, the MOD, the BBC, Royal Societies, Research Councils, and almost all universities in E&W support nuclear power.
Even the anti-nuclear Pugwash group is pro-nuclear energy in the UK (but not abroad of course): its founder members are no doubt turning in their graves. It sadly even extends to the UK’s Guardian newspaper: most of its editors routinely spike stories which question nuclear power and they have repeatedly refused to carry Comment is Free articles opposing nuclear developments
One result is that organisations which opposed nuclear power in the past, eg environmental groups such as Greenpeace UK, Friends of the Earth (E&W) and Medact refrain from campaigning against nuclear in England. Note that for FoE (E&W) the reluctance stems from their HQ. Several local FoE groups continue to campaign strongly.
This reluctance does not exist among their sibling organisations in other countries – Greenpeace International, Greenpeace Europe and FoE subsidiaries in most other countries. And, in a telling fact, Scottish environmental groups, including FoE Scotland and WWF Scotland, remain staunchly anti-nuclear.
Why? There is no nuclear hegemony in Scotland as the Scottish Government is formally opposed to new nuclear power stations.
Are things changing for the better?
There are signs the worm is turning. In November 2014, the former Government Chief Scientist, Sir David King, who had strongly supported nuclear, stated that Britain “might well” be able to do without nuclear power altogether, and that the real priority should be on renewables, and developing ways of storing electricity so as to be able to depend on intermittent sun and wind.
After Fukushima, many banks and international financial institutions turned their backs on nuclear preferring to invest in the renewables. Indeed, the Government and Labour Party are unaware that nuclear power is in decline in the rest of the world. This decline is accelerating: even Russia has been cancelling its nuclear power plans.
As well as the above FT article, other commentators are now pointing to the dire situation at HPC. For example the Sunday Times recently reported “a growing chorus calling for Hinkley to be scrapped.”
The defeat of almost all Scottish Labour MPs (only one remains) at the May election by Scottish National Party (SNP) MPs has changed Westminster for the better. For many people, the election of 56 centre-left SNP MPs was a ray of hope in an otherwise disappointing election, despite the racism-tinged hostility of the media and the Labour Party towards the SNP.
Their MPs election has injected much-needed fresh thinking into Westminster about nuclear (and other) issues, as the SNP is strongly anti-nuclear.
A final word goes to the indefatigable Labour MP, Paul Flynn. Despite his mobility disability, and despite strong hostility from his Party leadership, he has for years – along with his equally indefatigable researcher (and Ecologist author) David Lowry – consistently opposed the Government’s and Labour’s nuclear obsessions in Parliament.
On June 18, 2015 in Parliament, Flynn stated: “Nuclear power was promised as an energy source that would be too cheap to meter. It is now too expensive to generate. If we were planning a nuclear policy from scratch, would we choose to do a deal with two French companies, one of which is bankrupt, while the other, Electricité de France, has a debt of €33 billion? Would we also collaborate with countries with dreadful human rights records – China […] or Arabia where people are executed on the street?”
In conclusion, the Labour Party needs to take a fresh look at the dire situation with Hinkley Point C, and more widely at its ill-conceived and out-of-date love affair with nuclear power. The Leadership election offers just such an opportunity.
Much depends on who the next Leader will be, and it’s interesting that Jeremy Corbyn MP, who is opposed to all things nuclear, obtained the support of 36 Labour MPs to reach the ballot paper for the leadership election.
Dr Ian Fairlie is not a member of any political party. Between 1975 and 1989, he was a researcher at the TUC. For more information, refer to www.ianfairlie.org