With every day that passes, the proposed new Hinkley Point power station looks less flagship and more shipwreck. But we don’t have to go down with this one.
Yesterday’s announcement that the cost of building the new nuclear plant has risen again, this time by a staggering £1.5bn, came just ten days after the National Audit Office confirmed what campaigners have been saying for years – that the deal is overpriced and risky.
According to a 2015 report from the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), Hinkley would make new nuclear power in the UK the world’s most costly. In fact the power station would, according to Greenpeace, be the most expensive object in history.
French state-owned company EDF will join China in paying for the plant, but taxpayers and consumers will cough up £30bn in subsidies for the energy produced. This could rise to an eye-watering £50bn.
With the cost of renewable energy now falling faster than anyone anticipated, it’s hard to imagine a more expensive way of producing power, or indeed a common sense reason for continuing with such a folly.
In 2007, EDF chief executive Vincent de Rivaz said Hinkley C could be providing the power to cook Christmas turkeys by 2017. That slipped to 2025. Now we are told it could be another 15 months more – and this with a reactor design which has yet to be shown to work anywhere else in the world. The project threatens to sink into a whirlpool of expensive defensiveness and self-justification, all for a terrible deal which we will all be locked into, and paying for, for years to come.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. Over the past month, Theresa May’s administration has crumbled. Propped up by the Democratic Unionist Party, unable to implement its manifesto promises and derided in Europe, the disastrous election has left this government on its knees. But this moment of weakness creates an opportunity – we have the real chance to stop Hinkley in its tracks and think again.
The government appears committed, come what may, but if politicians from across political divides speak up against this expensive white elephant, we can force May to take the courageous decision needed to cancel the project.
It’s well known that politicians share a penchant for big projects like Hinkley – Heathrow expansion and HS2 to name but two – but even in this case it’s hard to see what is actually keeping the idea afloat.
Although the plans may be fatally holed, it is the lack of any real opposition holding the government to account that is stopping it going under completely. Labour and the Lib Dems both support the project. But it’s time to break away from the old school consensus around the often illusory benefits of building big new things. An opposition working together, along with a few sympathetic Tories, could consign Hinkley to the dustbin of history.
We know that alternative plans are available. There are many, much cheaper options. Germany, which is phasing out nuclear, is breaking renewable records and we can, too. You can’t have your cake and eat it when it comes to environment policy, any more than you can have your cake and eat it on Brexit. We need to make the right choices and ploughing such colossal subsidies into Hinkley sucks resources from where they are really needed: investment in renewables.
The New Economics Foundation has suggested we could provide more than six times our annual electricity needs through a Blue New Deal, getting renewable offshore energy through wind and wave while rejuvenating our coastal communities with 160,000 new jobs. Green MEP Molly Scott Cato has shown how the South West alone could meet all its energy needs through renewables, creating more than 100,000 new jobs. This puts the 900 full-time posts expected to be available at Hinkley, if construction is ever completed, into sharp perspective.
But to transition to this jobs-rich, decentralised, renewable energy economy, we need to make the right political choices now. In the case of Hinkley that means politicians holding the government to account when it is wasting taxpayers’ money on a project that is not fit for purpose – and simply won’t deliver what we need for the future.