Centrica's exit isn't as big a deal as you think

Centrica withdrew from new UK nuclear projects.

Yesterday Centrica announced it would not take a 20 per cent share in the new nuclear power plant planned for Hinkley Point in Somerset. It was the minority partner with EDF, and leaves the France-based utility holding the entire (potentially £6 bn) can.

Centrica pulled out because of uncertainty on cost and schedule. No doubt its decision is a blow for the project to build a 1650 MW EPR pressurised water reactor—for which, by the way, EDF has not made a final investment decision. But there still are lots of reasons to hope that the project will still go ahead.

First, the current adverse market conditions favour nationalised utilities (or vendors) like EDF for nuclear new-build; whether it is Russia in India, Turkey, Belarus or China, or South Korea in the UAE, state-owned developers have the deepest pockets. They need them: unlike gas or coal, nuclear power plants demand most of their costs up front.

And those vendors that are not state-owned but wish to pursue nuclear new-build have had to act like it. In 2011, GE Hitachi proposed being a major investor in a new reactor for Lithuania (although those plans have probably been shot down by a referendum). Its corporate cousin Hitachi has recently come to the UK and is underwriting its pre-construction safety assessment (for now) as the new owner of nuclear new-build venture Horizon, after Germany-based utilities e.on and RWE sold out. They were beset by problems at home: after Fukushima, the German government quickly arranged a phase-out of all nuclear power plants. Over the next decade, their once-profitable assets will have to be written off.

One nuclear new-build vendor who has so far not pledged to take a share of a new-build project is France’s AREVA (79 per cent owned by the French state). However, its role as the principal contractor (with Siemens) for Finland’s Olkiluoto 3 has become tantamount to the same thing. To land the contract for the first non-France EPR, AREVA agreed with client TVO on a fixed-price contract. Subsequent delays and cost overruns have led to litigation with billions at stake.

Second, EDF’s purchase of British Energy in 2008 really only makes sense in the context of the opportunity for new-build. Seven of the eight nuclear power plants it bought at the time were based on obsolete technology whose potential for long-term operation was iffy (although their lifetimes will be extended by seven years in general). Those assets were not worth the £12.5 bn purchase cost. What was worth paying for, according to this idea, was lots of potential for new-build sites. Backing out now would harm the company’s future prospects.

Third, the UK branch of EDF, EDF Energy, has had a good 12 months. Its performance in 2012 was the best for seven years, which means not only cash in the bank but also a hopeful step away from technical faults that have hurt recent performance. Commercial production of the first units of its new 1300 natural gas plant in West Burton, Nottinghamshire started in 2012 and the rest are due to come online later this year. When Centrica joined EDF in new-build, it also put in a 20 per cent stake in EDF Energy’s operating nuclear power fleet. It has not announced plans to pull out of that investment.

The most important development for EDF’s new nuclear ambitions was that its nuclear reactor design was finally approved by the regulator at the end of 2012. Although it will still have to apply for a nuclear construction permit, obtaining design approval has broken the back of one of the biggest sources of nuclear new-build investment risk: the uncertainty caused by regulatory scrutiny. As of right now, the EPR reactor is the only modern nuclear power plant design that can be built in the UK. The Westinghouse AP1000 reactor is next in line; it is waiting for a customer to  finish the review process.

Will Dalrymple is editor of Nuclear Engineering International

Photograph: Getty Images
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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.