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

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.