The Commission has raised doubts on almost every aspect of this project. Photo: Getty
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Hinkley nuclear power plant bombshell for out-going European Commission

Outgoing college members face a decision with far-reaching consequences on the Hinkley C power plant.

The 28-strong outgoing European Commission might have been hoping for a gentle exit. But en route to the exit door, former EU President Barroso and his sidekick, competition commissioner Joaquín Almunia, have dropped a radioactive bombshell. In the next few days the outgoing college members face a decision with far-reaching consequences, both for the integrity of decision making in Europe and for European energy policy for anything up to the next 50 years.

This Wednesday EU Commissioners are due to vote on whether to give the green light to the financial deal that would see Hinkley C nuclear power plant being built in Somerset, and subsequently open the door for further nuclear expansion across Europe. The deal would see EDF, the company planning to build Hinkley C, offered a strike price for its electricity of £92.50 per MWh – roughly twice the current wholesale price of power – as well as a state credit guarantee of £10bn.

In December 2013, the Commission raised doubts on almost all aspects of the project, stating that the “aid would in principle be incompatible under EU state aid rules.” At that stage it raised a number of serious concerns about the level of government money that was being provided and the nature of the contract. Given this clear legal ruling, Commissioners will need to ask themselves what has changed since then.

The Commission itself valued the state aid for EDF from the UK government at £17.6bn: at what point is state aid no longer state aid? The Commission raised concerns about the failure of Hinkley to meet energy security criteria, given that it would not produce any electricity until at least 2023. So when does lack of energy security suddenly become energy security? The Commission also concluded that the nuclear industry was a mature industry that did not warrant state aid: at what point does a mature industry suddenly become an immature one?

In the corridors of Brussels it is whispered that the German federal government has been involved in a back-room deal. Angela Merkel has previously achieved exemptions from EU subsidy rules for the German government’s Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG). The legislation behind this, which provides feed-in incentives for renewable energy technologies, is helping transform energy generation away from fossil fuels and nuclear towards renewables, which now accounts for around 30 per cent of Germany's electricity.

However, in return for the European Commission granting exemptions from EU subsidy rules, Merkel is rumoured to have agreed to support British nuclear subsidies. So, while the Berlin government is de-commissioning its own nuclear power plants and turning to renewables, it is at the same time undermining nuclear phase-out across the rest of Europe.

The case of Hinkley Point C shows clearly that nuclear power is neither economic nor competitive; if it were it would not need the inflated strike price to make it profitable. Wind power is already cheaper than nuclear on land and by 2023, the earliest date a new reactor in England would become operational, a whole range of other technologies will be able to provide electricity at much lower cost.

In some European countries – such as Sweden and the Czech Republic – new plants are not being pursued precisely because they are not economically viable. If Commissioners agree the Hinkley deal, UK taxpayers would be left paying for one of the most expensive power-stations in the world – and for the consequences when things go wrong – while EDF rakes in subsidies. Such a move would also lock in support for nuclear for decades, just as major banks are telling investors the smart money is in renewable energy. For example, giant multinational investment bank, UBS, has concluded Hinkley could be obsolete within 10 to 20 years. They say large power stations will soon become extinct because they are inflexible, and are “not relevant” for future electricity generation. The bank urges investors to “join the [solar] revolution”.

Nuclear power-stations cannot be part of our future. They are simply too expensive and too dangerous and there is still no solution for the radioactive waste. The European Commission must avoid making a false case on the economic viability of nuclear and instead make clear its preference for Member States to invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency. This is the best way of ensuring our energy security and independence from gas and oil imports from Russia and other countries. Nuclear is a red herring; it takes at least a decade before a plant such as Hinkley can come on-stream. Renewables on the other hand offer greater flexibility and are quicker to install.

As Green MEPs our appeal is to the 27 other Commissioners: Do you agree with the proposal from Joaquín Almunia? Or will you dare to replace his backward-looking deal with a future-oriented, secure energy policy for the Union? It is vital that the out-going commission dispel the suspicions of citizens by making the right choice over Hinkley.

We believe a new pact for energy efficiency and security provided by a variety of clean renewable sources is what is needed. We urge departing Commissioners to walk through the exit door with their heads held high, in the knowledge they showed principled opposition and set Europe on a course for an energy policy for the common good.

Molly Scott Cato is the Green MEP for the southwest of England and Gibraltar, elected as the first Green MEP for the region in May 2014. She was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton. She is Green Party parliamentary candidate for Bristol West.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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