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March 21, 2013

Hinkley Point C

Just when we thought it was unsafe to go back into the water up pops the UK Government to say maybe it was not so bad as we thought!

The ‘water’ in this case was the tsunami induced waters that flowed so copiously into the standby generating sets of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station located not a million miles from Japan’s capital, Tokyo.

The problem with Fukushima was its coastal siting. First came the earthquake that knocked out the vital cooling water necessary to keep the various reactors from meltdown. Then came the tsunami and with it millions of gallons of seawater swamping the standby generating sets there just in case such an unlikely event ever happened. It did. The net result we all know.

It so happens, this month, March 2013, is the second anniversary of Japan’s nuclear power disaster and where three out of the six reactors involved went into full meltdown. Meltdown is not good where nuclear power stations are concerned.  Along the way came a series of hydrogen gas explosions venting radioactive material into the surrounding environment. Bungled plant and Government inspired safety procedures followed leading to the total evacuation of 100,000 people living within a 20-30km radius. To date only 16000 people have been allowed back. Latest estimates are that it could take between 40 – 60 years to clean up the resultant mess.

Fukushima underlined what we already knew: anything to do with nuclear is a highly hazardous and risky undertaking. And if anything goes wrong then it can take decades, to put right and cost a fortune let alone the impact on people’s lives. But then maybe Stalin was right? A person’s life is a disaster. A million is a statistic.

Fukushima has not been the only power facility to have gone wrong. Chernoby in Russia was probably the worst with its ‘Level 7’ event, whilst others include Three Mile Island in the US, Windscale in the UK, Chalk River in Canada, Orleans in France and Buenos Aires in Argentina. Since the nineteen fifties it adds up to almost 30 civilian ‘accidents’ worldwide excluding military candidates (Hanford in Washington State for example springs to mind here).

But parking these not inconsiderable issues to one side, Government’s have to decide if ‘nuclear’ remains an option in the energy mix when it comes to considering what the next stage of the power generation game should be. They like to go for as near certainty as they can get in an uncertain world. Not only that but ‘carbon emissions’ and how to limit them is also becoming a prime consideration that was never there before. Hence in this context the retro fitting of flue gas desulphurization kits amongst other measures to British coal fired power stations of Drax and Ferrybridge sited on the Yorkshire coalfield.

So ‘nuclear’ still has life Governments around the world opine even after all the brickbats have been thrown. To underline this the British Government, even as we speak, has just given the green light to French owned nuclear power station builders EDF to build a new 4000MW power station to be known as Hinckley Point C and costing a currently estimated £14billion. One thing we know is certain, it will cost more and will take longer by the time it’s done.

Sited as Fukushima was right on the coastline (the British one is in North Somerset) the Hinkley C plan has however been modified in the light of Japanese experience so as to give improved earthquake and sea water flooding resistance. This is just as well for despite the belief that the UK is earthquake-free, it’s is not strictly true. Since 2000 there have been 29 of them. Most fall below 3.5 on the Richter scale and which means they are just about noticeable. However, as residents of the town of Bishops Castle in Shropshire can testify, they can still cause much damage (April 2nd 1990 and 5.1 on the Richter scale).

Only one hurdle remains on the road to Hinckley Point C and it is not small. It involves how much the Government will allow EDF to charge for its electricity over forty years of the project’s expected sixty-year lifespan. Observers say the company is after a strike price of around £95 – £100 per megawatt hour. That’s around twice the price of the current going rate. The reason is EDF’s capital funding costs bearing in mind it won’t be coming from the cash strapped UK Government. Instead it will be coming from financial institutions wanting to see a healthy return on their investment. Until such an agreement is reached work is unlikely to start on building a nuclear plant that will ultimately provide power to 5million British homes.

Needless to say the environmental lobby is on the case. Friends of the Earth wanted wind power as an alternative. Given Hinckley is on the Bristol Channel coastline it might have once seemed a possibility – until one does the math. Each wind turbine generates a mere 5MW. This would mean a wind farm of 80 units or about enough to cover the whole of the Bristol Channel. A scheme for a paltry 12 turbines was turned down in 2005 so approval for a mega wind farm is highly unlikely. Another alternative favoured by FoE was a highly impractical distributed solar power system. Maybe okay for the deserts of Saudi Arabia but less so for the UK.

All this still leaves the not small issue of the Hinkley Point C resultant and highly toxic nuclear waste.

Originally this might have found a home at the Government’s planned underground repository on the Cumbrian coastline 250 miles North West of London. Superficially it would have been easily accessible by ship from Hinkley Point C. But an outsize spanner was thrown in the works when the Cumbrian local authority, after years of supporting the nuclear industry, ungraciously vetoed the whole £12billion idea last month (see February blog). And as it stands the existing and ‘temporary’ high level storage facilities at Sellafield aimed at holding its output of solidified and radioactive vitrified ‘glass log’ output, is getting close to full. So far no alternative solution is in sight.

Politicians are of course in the realm of doing what they think is possible. To the fore of Energy Secretary Ed Davey’s thinking will be the knowledge that of Britain’s remaining 9 nuclear plants left out of an original 19, all but Sizewell will be shut by 2023. Amongst them will be Hinkley Point B, an aged Advanced Gas Reactor still soldiering on as we speak at 70 per cent output. And Hinkley Point A, a twin Magnox reactor design, finally shuttered May 23rd 2000 and undergoing decommissioning.

As the planned closures continue, if there are no replacements built, then the lights will start going out. Hinckley C on its own would bridge nearly forty per cent of the gap. And the nuclear industry remains hopeful the site will serve as a world showplace for rekindling nuclear power passions after Fukushima almost extinguished them.

Meanwhile shutting Britain’s aging nuclear stations brings with it yet another problem: safe decommissioning. It’s a process that takes up to a hundred years per site and on average costs £1billion a throw. This month (March 2013) the Public Accounts Committee, a select committee of the British House of Commons, estimated the total undiscounted cost of decommissioning all nuclear sites to be £100billion, a long way north of the £56billion estimate given in 2005.

One thing one is certain of anything with the word ‘nuclear’ in it and that is it will always costs more than you originally thought and will take longer than you originally thought. But such considerations are all well beyond the current Energy Secretary’s time horizon, or indeed his lifespan. They will simply become someone else’s problem. That means your children. And then their children’s children.

ENDS

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