Hinckley: A Step In The Right Direction?

Plans for a nuclear power station at Hinckley Point were initially announced by Tony Blair in 2006. With the earliest date the plant could be operational sometime in 2025, can this nuclear power station still be considered a step in the right direction? The Conservatives have been notoriously bi-polar on green issues, ranging from Cameron’s “greenest government ever” to telling ministers to “cut the green crap”; moving from pledging £730 million for funding of renewable’s contract auctions to Theresa May scrapping the Department for Energy and Climate Change. But nuclear power, regardless of it’s controversies, is a positive step away from carbon heavy electricity production. Could there be a case for Hinckley?

The most compelling arguments against Hinckley are not those that are critical of nuclear power, rather of this particular deal. In October 2013 Ministers agreed a minimum price of £92.50 per megawatt hour for the next 35 years, which is more than double the current market rate of around £39 per megawatt hour. Lynne Featherstone, the Lib Dem spokesperson on Energy and Climate Change, commented that “with the cost of renewable’s rapidly falling, Hinkley is now very bad value for money for the British taxpayer and should be abandoned immediately”. Whilst Caroline Lucas, Green Party joint leader, described it as “an absurd decision on every level”.

Labour have also been incredibly critical of the ever-rising bill that will have to be footed by the tax payer. The money could have arguably been better spent on investment in onshore wind-farms. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), new onshore wind-farms are now the cheapest way for a power company to produce electricity in Britain; costs have dropped to $85 (£55) per megawatt hour (MWh) compared with the current costs of about $115 for constructing coal or gas-fired plants, its analysis found. Though this is at peak output, which wind-farms rarely reach, and the current government recently abandoned onshore wind-farms as a viable large scale electricity production option.

Similarly, the cost of building of building offshore wind farms continues to fall. Swedish based company Vattenfall have just won contracts to build two projects in Danish waters for just over £51 per megawatt-hour (MWh); breaking the previous record of £63 set in the Netherlands. However, it must be noted that these figures are not directly comparable to the UK, as they exclude grid connection costs which can be up to £25 per megawatt hour. And the Danish sites are only 5 miles offshore, compared to UK projects that can be up to 75 miles offshore.

Critics have also been quick to declare the deal “too big to fail”, after initial hesitancy from Theresa May she has pushed the deal through. Perhaps she felt pressured by the amount of time and money that has been poured into it so far, and saw it as an opportunity to repair British-Chinese relations. Or perhaps it could be a subtle signal of British intent to work with nations outside the EU post-Brexit, re-affirming her “Brexit means Brexit” rhetoric. 

The Government claims Hinkley will provide 7% of Britain’s electricity needs for 60 years and create 26,000 jobs and apprenticeships, a figure which cannot be sneered at. And with the 8 existing nuclear plants in the UK due to close by 2030, Hinckley combined with the 11 other projects planned across the UK, do secure the role nuclear power in Britain for the long term. Though Hinckley, does come at a much higher cost than, for example, plants being built by Horizon in Wales and South Gloucestershire. These plants are to be based on tried and tested reactor technology, compared to the untested reactor technology proposed for Hinkley Point C.

But is a nuclear power Britain really an ideal senario? Ultimately it would be more cost effective and progressive to invest heavily in wind power, on and off shore. But with onshore wind-farms being rejected time and again by the public, Hinckley and the other 11 planned nuclear power stations could help to bridge the gap to truly renewable power, whilst keeping Britain on track to halving it’s carbon emissions by 2050. A small step in the right direction, sort of.

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