It is a strange feeling to be part of a new industrial revolution in the United Kingdom – that is what I believe the construction of Hinkley Point C really means. It will bring thousands of jobs into Somerset and secure the future of many more elsewhere across the country. Big-name British companies will benefit; and hundreds of smaller firms with specialist expertise in forgings, valves, pumps, cranes, electronics, refrigeration and every other industrial discipline are also in line for contracts.
The impact upon my constituency is enormous. It is no exaggeration to say that Hinkley C is changing life in Bridgwater and West Somerset for the good. This is an infrastructure scheme that dwarfs the London Olympic Games. It is the largest project ever undertaken in Europe. The investment will top some £20bn.
I was a twinkle in my mother’s eye when the diggers arrived on that windy stretch of land by the Bristol Channel and started to prepare the site for Hinkley A, Britain’s first new Magnox power station. Back then, as is the case now, there was national concern about meeting ever-increasing demands for electricity. Nuclear power provided a timely and cost-efficient answer. Hinkley A was completed in 1957 and came into operation around my sixth birthday. It generated power for 35 successful years. Many of the technicians who ran the plant still live in the area. Who can blame them? This part of Somerset is special.
Hinkley B was a more advanced version. It was switched on in 1976 and has been generating ever since. Chances are it will still be going strong until Hinkley C is ready to roll. During that time the policy of different governments towards nuclear energy wavered and changed. Incidents and accidents elsewhere in the world turned public opinion sour about the risks. But perhaps the biggest deterrent to investment by the state was the size of the sums involved.
The old nationalised Central Electricity Generating Board wanted to build a new pressurised water reactor at Hinkley as long ago as 1990. The government of the day balked at the cost. Instead, they privatised the industry and allowed the French company EDF to purchase all the assets of British Energy, including Hinkley. Throughout this change of ownership Hinkley B kept on generating power. By the time Hinkley C comes on stream its predecessor will have clocked up 50 years of active service.
Such a lifespan is rare in industry. Computers, mobile phones, washing machines and cars are all considered out of date after a very few years. It requires a completely different commercial or governmental mindset to pioneer and manage such projects. I have watched EDF at work in my constituency for almost two decades. I have come to understand – and admire – their patience and dogged determination to pursue an idea that will not earn them a single penny piece for at least 25 years.
Power stations like this require exacting standards and astronomic investment. They have to be built to last. The development of this project could never afford to ride rough-shod over the anxieties of local residents. The planning, and public information provided by the company has been exemplary – helped, it must be said, by the painstaking efforts of Sedgemoor District Council to negotiate generous compensation agreements from EDF and ensure that Whitehall was always on side.
The rewards are already significant. Bridgwater is now recognised nationally as a vital hub in the development of nuclear energy. We are training tomorrow’s nuclear engineers. We now have a new, vibrant Somerset Energy Innovation Centre helping to link local companies to the ever hungry Hinkley supply chain. There are job opportunities, business openings, and a real buzz in an area that survived the recession and is now heading for a new prosperity.
The safety records of Hinkley A and Hinkley B have been excellent. The public have good reason to believe that all the risks – and, of course, there are a few – have been properly calculated and intelligently minimised.
Inevitably, there are those who continue to argue against nuclear power. But they are a shrinking minority. Every reliable poll of public opinion now suggests that the nuclear solution is widely accepted as carbon-friendly. And the high price of installation is evened out by the very long life of every new power plant. Most people realise that “when the sun don’t shine and the wind won’t blow” we cannot rely on so-called “green” technologies of solar and wind power. Renewable energy is not the only answer to meeting Britain’s electricity needs. The “strike” price – to be paid by the government for power that Hinkley C will eventually produce – was always controversial. EDF struck a bargain that many consider hard. But I know the government worked equally hard to secure that fine balance between paying a fair price and looking after public interest.
So-called “Little Englanders” may be miffed that this is a French innovation financed with French money. But the ancient history of Hinkley has some important lessons. In Neolithic times a tribe, known as the Beaker people, arrived from France and settled on the peninsula. They came with something entirely new: the vital know-how to extract metal from the ground and make it work for mankind. Today, if you drive out to Hinkley, you can still see Wick Barrow, the Bronze Age burial mound, where the Beaker people’s remains were discovered. The French have been innovating at Hinkley for 4,000 years.