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Tuesday, October 22, 2013 

The legacy of past failures.

Yesterday's announcement that the government has struck a deal with EDF Energy and China General Nuclear to build a new reactor at Hinkley Point was hardly a surprise.  Apart from the bargaining, which had been going on for some time, the last cog in the wheel and tip-off as to what to expect was the Liberal Democrats voting at their conference to turn their previous opposition to nuclear power on its head.  As energy secretary, Ed Davey had the privilege of presenting the pact to parliament (alliteration, eh?), lightly glossing over that as recently as 2006 he had been completely against new nukes, saying "people don't want nuclear".

We shouldn't though be too hard on the Lib Dems.  When the facts change, you should change position, and as much as it's usually a bad sign when all three parties support something, on this occasion investment in nuclear energy, alongside renewables, is almost certainly the right policy.  If we're to keep climate change to below the point at which increases in temperature will cause catastrophic change to the weather and the planet, and keep the lights on, a mix of the two is almost the only way to go.  Greens and some of those on the left have, as Mark Lynas and George Monbiot argued repeatedly, completely overstated the dangers of nuclear power or see the issue through the prism of weapons rather than as a non-carbon source of energy that is always on.  I write this having voted Green at the last general election, as well as at every European parliament vote since I turned 18.  Chernobyl and Fukushima were and are disasters, it's true, but both were the result of either human mistakes or failures in construction and location.  The reactor planned for Hinkley Point C will be of the third generation EPR design, similar to the ones being built in Finland (behind time and over budget) and China, and so won't be an integral fast reactor, which has the potential to deal with the problem of the left over waste which we are also yet to solve.

The problems with the deal aren't with building the new nukes, which will happen, it's with the details.  The agreement with EDF and CGN is essentially yet another private finance initiative, or as the Graun puts it in this case, a foreign finance initiative.  The coalition (and industry) that tells Ed Miliband and Labour they can't freeze energy prices for 20 months can tell foreign investors the base rate they'll be paid for the energy to be generated for 35 years, 10 years longer than Mark Lynas thought would be the basis for the dealAs Damian Carrington also notes, the £92.50 per megawatt hour figure (£89.50 per MWh if EDF also goes ahead with another reactor at Sizewell) is subject to change, and not set in stone.  Despite already being double the current price, it could potentially go far higher, or indeed, although considering the way things have been going for a long time now it's extremely unlikely, lower.  This might be about the same subsidy as wind is currently receiving, but that's expected to decrease as the years pass.  Much as Caroline Lucas might be wrong in opposing nuclear full stop, she's right that the deal should be urgently reviewed by the National Audit Office to see whether or not this is a stitch-up we'll all be contributing to for decades to come.

Second is the irony, or rather humiliation, in presenting this as a triumph for the country when the deal means we'll be paying the French and Chinese governments to do a job we were almost the first to finesse (although the near disaster at Windscale, later renamed Sellafield, is almost always brushed over if mentioned at all).  North Sea gas and oil played a role, but the wholesale privatisation of the Central Electricity Generating Board, rather than keeping a majority stake as the French have with EDF meant that relying on others rather than ourselves was always going to be the case.  The projection is the build at Hinkley Point will create around 25,000 jobs, but as for how many of those will be skilled British jobs, or of the preparing the site variety remains to be seen.  If 57% of the jobs are to be with British contractors as a way of restarting expertise in the industry, then great, it's just to be believed when we see it.

Coming as this does as three of the big six energy companies have announced triple the inflation rate increases in prices, here's another thought to savour.  Those green energy subsidies that make up some of the rise are soon to be added to by the agreed subsidy for the new nukes. As James Meek put it in his London Review of Books piece from last year, this is:

Effectively the French government ... buying the right to tax British electricity customers through their electricity bills; to use British money and British sites to finance a world showcase for unproven French nuclear technology. And because the hidden taxes in electricity bills take no account of people’s ability to pay, the poorer you are, the bigger contribution you make to the programme.

Thanks to the legacy of privatisation, the Tory party that today wants to renegotiate our relationship with Europe has surprisingly few qualms about leaving the responsibility for keeping the lights on to the perfidious, completely signed up to the EU project French state.  The contradictions are all but unending.

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Previous nuclear disasters were caused by human mistakes. Fine, that won't happen again. The new reactors will be run by ... dolphins, maybe, or Daleks?
Human beings make mistakes, have problems with legal or illegal drugs, and even more significantly, have an ineradicable propensity to cover up their screw-ups. The history of nuclear power in Britain is the history of denials and cover-ups.
I would place a large bet that even now we don't know all there is to know about past leaks and problems, even in Britain let alone other countries. At Fukushima the truth is still trickling out.
We can usually live with that aspect of human nature, but nuclear power is different. That's proved by the fact that no insurance company or conglomerate will underwrite the full risks - it has to be done by the state.
Once we can invent systems that will persuade people to admit to their mistakes even though it could well ruin their careers and reputations, then large scale nuclear power could be a good idea. Maybe that's not impossible. But if it is possible it will take all our human ingenuity to achieve, and no-one seems to be making it a priority at the moment.

All this is true, but I just don't see any other way we can keep the lights on and tackle climate change without involving nuclear. Even if we went ahead with the Severn barrage say, then the subsidy level for doing so is well above that of nuclear. We keep hearing about clean capture and storage, and yet it doesn't seem to be happening. Unless we drastically reduce usage across the board, there really aren't any easy options.

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