Reports at the weekend said that Boris Johnson had approved government funding of £6bn towards the £20-30bn estimated cost for the Sizewell C plant in Suffolk. On becoming caretaker Prime Minister, he promised not to make any big decisions that would limit the options of his successor, but a leaked letter from a Treasury minister confirms that committing to Sizewell C does exactly that.
The proposal for two reactors on the Suffolk coast comes from EDF. Their other nuclear ventures are doing so badly that the French government is having to buy back the 15 per cent of shares they don’t already own.
Faults in EDF’s reactors in France have caused 12 of them to be shut down because of cracks in safety-system pipework, and more than a dozen have had to shut down because the drought means there is not enough river water to cool them.
The only new reactor being built in France is at Flamanville near Cherbourg. Embarrassingly for EDF, it is running 11 years late, with start-up now predicted in 2023. It was supposed to cost €3.3bn (about £2.8bn) but the French Court of Audit puts it at nearly six times this.
The Olkiluoto reactor in Finland is now running 12 years late and nearly four times over budget. It went on line in March but the full supply of power to the grid has been twice-postponed to December because of repair work.
The same reactor designs were used for two reactors at Taishan in China. Taishan 1 started supplying power at the end of 2018 but has been shut down for more than a year because of a leak that EDF described as “an imminent radiological threat to the site and the public”.
Construction at Hinkley Point C in Somerset is now running ten years late and at nearly double the budget agreed as recently as 2016. All our electricity bills will be higher for the next 35 years because of a guaranteed levy to pay for the reactors.
Ironically, the Seagreen offshore windfarm produced its first electricity this week. When it is fully operational next year, this one wind farm will produce a third of the supposed output of Sizewell C but for a tenth of the price. And of course it won’t create any of that embarrassing nuclear waste that has to be looked after for the next thousand generations.
Speaking of the sea, a flood plain on the Suffolk coast is lovely but not a good place to put the Sizewell C nuclear power station as sea levels rise and storm surges grow. In addition, the English Planning Inspectorate rejected the application over concerns about whether there was a guaranteed source of cooling water but was over-ruled.
As we face a cost-of-living crisis driven by rising international gas prices, the obvious things to do are massively accelerate programmes to make houses more energy efficient, replace gas boilers with heat pumps and build lots of renewables of all sorts. The last thing to do is commit funding to new nuclear reactors that might produce some really expensive electricity in a decade or two.
Dr Richard Dixon is an environmental campaigner and consultant