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
Show Hide image

The Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder