Hinkley Point: a nuclear mystery

Essays > Science, IT, Nature

Further to his article on the impact of the Fukushima disaster, Surendra addresses the ongoing dramatic concerns about the global nuclear industry which are widely being kept mum about.

Hinkley Point C
An artist’s impression of the Hinkley Point C power station. Image courtesy of EDF Energy

It is hard to believe that the nuclear industry continues to survive. Without massive subsidies, guarantees from governments and premiums on electricity bills from start to finish, it would never have got off the ground in the first place. How gullible are we? More and more scientists point to the public health risks and business experts deride the inefficiency of the industry. Yet governments still agree to provide subsidies all along the line. They help cover construction costs, lack of profits from electricity generation, insurance against accidents, waste disposal and decommissioning. Hinkley Point on the Somerset coast of south west England is a great example of the latest fiasco. It could turn out to be the last. Even nuclear supporters such as Fred Pearce are asking, “Is the era of nuclear power coming to an end?” and concludes, “It looks ever more like a 20th century industrial dinosaur, unloved by investors, the public, and policymakers alike. The crisis could prove terminal.” (Yale Environment 360, May 15, 2017)

While the US struggles unsuccessfully and the European nuclear industry contracts, the UK has approved the building of two new nuclear reactors, Hinkley Point C, the first for more than twenty years. Construction and investment is being supplied by Électricité de France (EDF) with further bankrolling from China General Nuclear (CGN). These companies will each retain a 33% interest in the project. The French nuclear firm, Areva, is providing the still untested design and technology. Let us look at these three main players.

From its inception in 1946, EDF was a nationalised venture and now the French government owns 85% of the corporation. It is a world leader in the industry and more than 70 per cent of French electricity is supplied by nuclear power. However, like the world over, its nuclear plants have a limited shelf life. They are ageing, becoming less efficient and more prone to accidents. At the same time, since the disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima, regulatory bodies are introducing increasingly stringent demands for safety which impact on the sales of new ones. EDF is financially unhealthy. Earnings and income continue to fall while its debt remains steady at €37 billion. The French government has provided €3 billion extra capital per year for the past two years to ease the situation. EDF still needs to sell €10 billion worth of assets and make 7,000 employees redundant over the next three years. Unsurprisingly, shares in EDF fell below €8 in 2017, compared with €80 ten years ago.

Olkiluoto 3
Olkiluoto 3. Image courtesy TVO

At the start of the millennium, Areva was a thriving global leader in nuclear technology. With an innovative design for a European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), it was set to pioneer a new generation of nuclear power plants throughout the world and renew the ageing fleet at home. It started in 2003 with Finland. Meant to showcase Areva EPR acumen, Olkiluoto 3 was scheduled for completion ten years ago, in 2007, at a cost of €4 million. Its budget is now well over €8 million and hopes for full operation have been stretched to 2018. As a result, the Finnish company procuring the reactor has sued for breach of contract. Earlier this year a major investor in Finland is reported to have said if the nuclear industry wants to have a future, it cannot afford more projects like this. By normal standards, like Westinghouse in the USA, Areva should be bankrupt. Given that the French government directly and indirectly has another 85% stake-hold in Areva, that could not be allowed. A bailout was provided at taxpayer expense and Areva was put under the umbrella of EDF.

EPR Flamanville
EPR Flamanville, France

At the end of 2007, EDF and Areva began building another European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) on home ground, at Flamanville near Cherbourg. The estimates are proving as unrealistic as those in Finland. This time the original cost was estimated at €3.3 billion and the plant was meant to be fully functional by 2012. The figures have been revised this year to €10.5 billion and the hopeful starting date is late 2018. But there is a snag. In 2015 regulators (ASN) were concerned about weak spots in the steel containment vessel. Entailing major dismantling, it could cost a fortune and take years to repair if the ASN ruled that the steel is too brittle. The regulators’ report on the reactor has yet to be released at the time of writing but apparently, a copy of it seen by Reuters, concludes that the reactor is fit for service. It will, however, need to be kept under surveillance throughout its lifetime and the lid of the vessel will probably need replacing in a few years.

Speaking to The Japan Times, Greenpeace had this to say,

“The ASN is no longer able to decide on safety in all independence and cannot resist industry pressure, simply because the survival of the entire French nuclear industry is at stake with the approval of this reactor vessel.”

There is a further argument that the team of experts that investigated the case is neither sufficiently independent of the ASN nor the nuclear industry able to challenge a conclusion that the EPR at Flamanville will be safe to operate. Apparently eight of the experts work or have worked with the ASN or its technical partner. Another eight are employed or have been employed by EDF or Areva. Only three of the experts are independent of the nuclear industry. “The ASN is using an expert committee that is at its feet, with a text it has drafted itself, to legitimize a highly controversial decision on the safety of a device whose failure could have implications for millions of people,” said Mycle Schneider, author of The Annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2016 (The Japan Times, June 29, 2017).

Taishan Nuclear Guangdong
Taishan EPR Guangdong, China

China General Nuclear is a major energy corporation that constructs and operates nuclear power plants at home and is eager to gain contracts overseas. In 2007, it collaborated with Areva to build two EPRs in Guangdong province. Here the timeline was more realistic. These two reactors are already undergoing cold testing and due to be operational in late 2017 and early 2018 respectively. Unless something goes wrong, they will be the first EPRs up and running. Voiced concerns regarding CGN are not about adhering to contracts but about safety. In an article for New Matilda under the title ‘Global Meltdown? Nuclear Power’s Annus Horribilis’, Jim Green states in July 2017, “China is the only country with a significant nuclear expansion program. However, nuclear growth could take a big hit in the event of economic downturn. And nuclear growth could be derailed by a serious accident, which is all the more likely because of China’s inadequate nuclear safety standards, inadequate regulation, lack of transparency, repression of whistle-blowers, world’s worst insurance and liability arrangements, security risks, and widespread corruption.” It is also worth noting that Chinese future nuclear plans do not include any further construction of European Pressurised Reactors. They have completely moved away from the Areva blueprint and are using their own modifications of a modern Westinghouse design.

With opposition throughout France and an appalling track record, even EDF had major detractors within its ranks against proceeding with the European Pressurised Reactors at Hinkley Point C. In March 2016 EDF Finance Director, Thomas Piquemal, declared the project unviable and resigned. A resolution of sorts finally emerged at a divided EDF board meeting in July 2016 when 10 of its directors voted in favour, 7 against and another resigned in dismay. As Chinese investors flew in with relief to celebrate with EDF, the UK cabinet shocked the world by calling for a review and dousing the party. The debate in the UK raged. Main arguments in favour were about low carbon emissions and the provision of jobs. Also, wind and sun are erratic and nuclear power provides stable generation. The pro-nuclear lobby was powerful but limited by a severe lack of options. The number of companies in the market to build reactors was barely existent as were tried and tested modern designs. It seemed that the EDF, Areva, CGN combo was the only option. Critics of Hinkley Point C pointed to the massive costs, both hidden and overt and an untried design. The list of safety issues included risk of accident, terrorist attack, disposal of waste and dangers to public health.

How the British government eventually managed to agree the building of Hinkley Point C last September remained a mystery. The cost to taxpayers and tariffs on electricity bills will be enormous. For a start, there is some £30 billion over 35 years to cover the expected difference between the cost of generating electricity at the plant and how much consumers can be expected to pay in an open market. The UK government will guarantee loans and pay inevitable extra costs for waste disposal and decommissioning. Furthermore, in the case of accident, EDF will only pay the first £1 billion and UK citizens the rest. Currently, estimated costs for the Fukushima disaster are measured in hundreds of billions of British Pounds. At the absolute minimum, costs of subsidies for Hinkley will be over £40 billion but could be much, much more.

Greenpeace executive director John Sauven said last autumn, “This decision is unlikely to be the grand finale to this summer’s political soap opera. There are still huge outstanding financial, legal and technical obstacles that can’t be brushed under the carpet. There might be months or even years of wrangling over these issues. That’s why the Government should start supporting renewable power that can come online quickly for a competitive price.” (Hinkley Point nuclear power station will go ahead, Government confirms, Joe Watts, The Independent, September 15, 2016). This July, Jonathan Bartley wrote amusingly, “With every day that passes, the proposed new Hinkley Point power station looks less flagship and more shipwreck. But we don’t have to go down with this one.” (The Hinkley C nuclear power plant will be a costly mistake – we can still stop it, The New Statesman, July 4, 2017)

The whole thing beggars understanding until we consider a local Somerset article written by Lorna Stephenson (Bristol Goes Nuclear: Hinkley, Oldbury and the defence industry, The Bristol Cable, March 2017). She cites a fascinating working paper by Cox, Johnstone and Stirling published by the University of Sussex on September 26, 2016. The title of the paper reveals all: ‘Understanding the Intensity of UK Policy Commitments to Nuclear Power: the role of perceived imperatives to maintain military nuclear submarine capabilities’. The authors point out “this aspect is entirely undocumented anywhere in UK energy policy literatures,” and refer to nuclear power stations as “highly demanding feats of engineering that are widely seen to present the only militarily credible platform for strategic nuclear weapons.” Mystery solved. Nuclear power is always about nuclear weapons.

United Nations Conference on the Banning of Nuclear Weapons

On July 7, 2017, at the United Nations Conference on the Banning of Nuclear Weapons, 122 countries voted in favour of the treaty. This conference was boycotted by all nations with nuclear arms: the United States of America, Russia, UK, China, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel. On the same day, the USA, UK and France jointly issued an opposing statement:

“We do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to it. This initiative clearly disregards the realities of the international security environment. Accession to the ban treaty is incompatible with the policy of nuclear deterrence, which has been essential to keeping the peace in Europe and North Asia for over 70 years.” (US, UK, France boycott UN treaty to ban nuclear weapons, Press TV, July 8, 2017)

I can only end this article with a much more, familiar quote from Oliver Hardy, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”

Related articles, also by Surendra
The Fukushima disaster will never go away
‘Atoms for Peace’ – Part 1 of 2 of his essay, ‘Radiation and the Nuclear Nightmare’
Share your Buddhahood to Save this Planet! – Part 2 of 2 of his essay, ‘Radiation and the Nuclear Nightmare’

Surendra TN sSurendra is a regular contributor – surendraphoto.com

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