The cost of decommissioning a nuclear power station

Conveniently ignored.

Much has been made in the press of Britain’s looming energy crisis over the past few years, with the more hysterical among us claiming that rolling blackouts are just around the corner. It is certainly true that if demand for electricity rises as predicted over the next decade or so, Britain will not have the generation capacity to keep up with demand. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that much of the country’s current power supply, especially its aging nuclear power plants, is reaching the end of its design life and will shortly be closed down. In fact, by 2023, all but one of Britain’s currently operating nuclear plants will have ceased operation, with the remaining reactor at Sizewell B soldiering on alone until 2035.

This has spurred the government into action, searching in earnest for new generation capacity to plug the looming gap. The cheapest and quickest solution would be to build larger and larger coal-fired thermal power plants, an especially attractive option given the current low price of coal on the international market, thanks to demand falling in the US as a result of its boom in shale gas production.

Of course, as well as being environmentally-toxic, this solution is also politically-so, with few willing to advocate a non-green solution to our energy needs. This leaves the government with the choice between renewables and nuclear power, both much cleaner alternatives, barring any Fukushima-style meltdowns. At this stage, it boils down to the cost of the electricity produced, on a per megawatt hour (MwH) basis. By the time the first of the new power plants is up and running in the 2020s, experts are predicting nuclear power to sell for around £95/MwH , whereas the leading renewable alternative, offshore wind power, would come in at just over £100/MwH. So, nuclear it is, simple as that.

Having reached this conclusion, so followed a global search for investors willing to stump up the cash for a fleet of new ultra-efficient, ultra-safe nuclear power plants. So far, the Horizon project, with plans to build reactors in Oldbury and Wylfa has been spearheaded by Japan’s Hitachi, and new reactors at Sizewell and Hinkley Point have been agreed with France’s EDF. The Financial Times has also reported that state-owned Chinese and Russia nuclear power suppliers are keen to enter the UK market, showing no shortage of potential options. At £95/MwH, investors know they can turn a profit, despite the large initial capex of nuclear power, estimated by EDF to stand at £14bn for the construction at Hinkley Point.

But what this price prediction fails to recognise is the massive cost of decommissioning nuclear reactors once they are finally closed after decades of service. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), the body responsible for coordinating the dismantling of closed nuclear power facilities and the disposal of radioactive waste, is learning the hard way just how much decommissioning can cost.

A government white paper in 2002 estimated the cost of decommissioning Britain’s current fleet of plants would be £43bn, many times greater than EDF’s investment at Hinkley Point. This estimate has slowly been revised upwards since then, finally reaching £73bn in 2007, before the NDA admitted the following year that it could still go up by several billion more.

One of the major costs is the safe disposal of highly radioactive material, which will not decay sufficiently as to become safe, for hundreds of thousands of years, most of which is held in temporary storage at the Sellafield reprocessing facility in Cumbria. Home to what The Observer calls “the most hazardous industrial building in western Europe”, building B30 houses an ageing cooling pond whose contents is not entirely known, even to the managers at the site, being a collection of spent fuel rods and other reactors parts from Britain’s earliest forays into nuclear power. This is just one of several such buildings on the site, whose contents is not known and is too radioactive to be adequately investigated.

Decades of successive governments have not quite known how to deal with this legacy of highly toxic waste materials accumulating at Sellafield, with further waste coming to the site and stored as other reactors from plants around the UK have produced spent fuel rods. Earlier this year, the Public Accounts Committee heavily criticised the cost of operations and clean-up at Sellafield, which has risen from £900m a year in 2005 to £1.6bn today.  In 2006, an idea was floated for deep geological storage of some of the highly toxic waste, some 200-1000m below the surface. But again, this plan has yet to receive firm funding, so the saga continues.

The current government knows that it will be long gone by the time these new reactors are shuttered and authorities must face up to their decommissioning, so it is convenient for them to continue conveniently ignoring the additional cost this process will have on the total overall financial impact of nuclear power on the UK taxpayer. It may be the cheaper and easier sell now, but certainly the more expensive in the long run. The spiralling costs at Sellafield are testament to that.

Sellafield nuclear power station. Photograph: Getty Images

Mark Brierley is a group editor at Global Trade Media

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.