The unhappy saga of the new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point just got even sorrier as French energy giant EDF admitted last night that it will be delayed until after its planned commissioning date of 2023. The scale of the delay is as yet unconfirmed, but any hold-up means that the new 3200MW station is unlikely to be generating in time to beat new EU emissions regs.
That in turn will mean the closure of many of the UK's existing coal-fired power stations, before Hinkley Point is ready to take over the load. With the margins of surplus capacity already running wafer thin, security of supply looks set to become at ever-greater risk. The government will have to find some other, doubtless very expensive, way to fill the gap.
The delays are apparently due to a last minute hiatus over investment, being negotiated by EDF and Chinese backers the China General Nuclear Corporation and China National Nuclear Corporation. That the financing of such a massive project should still be unconfirmed at this very late stage is just one indicator of the contingent nature of the proceedings, but construction problems are also bound to add further delays even as things progress.
Another, smaller reactor of the same EPR type is being built by EDF at Flamanville in France and is already six years late and billions of Euros over-budget. It should hardly come as a surprise that similar hold-ups are likely when the build eventually starts here.
The news comes on the back of a report from the OECD suggesting that the UK’s nuclear costs are already the highest in the world. The frankly eye-watering cost of £24.5bn is 2.5 times that of the (admittedly smaller) Flamanville plant, and the OECD says that that plants in South Korea and China, for example also come in at around one third of the cost of Hinkley.
Chuck in the fact that the government has guaranteed to pay getting on for double the current market rate for all the power generated by Hinkley when it does eventually come on the bars, and the true cost of official vacillation over energy policy for the past couple of decades starts to become plain. The chickens may not quite have come home to roost but they are heading that way.
Nuclear power is important, especially for providing steady-state baseload to supplement the variable contribution from wind and solar. But it is not viable at any price. How much different might things have been had the UK not given up on home-grown nuclear back in the 80s. By now we might have had leading edge modular reactor technology, smaller and much cheaper to build, better suited both to our crowded islands and to the sums readily available on the capital markets.
Instead we are forced to buy what’s available from our French neighbours who at least still retain a nuclear industry. But their offering is essentially state-owned, 20th Century, and expensive. The Chinese meanwhile are in the process of knocking up dozens of new nukes of their own design, largely on time and on budget.
Coming as it does after similar ‘unexpected’ delays to other major national projects like the electrification of the trans-pennine rail routes (also announced conveniently post-election) and even the rows over high speed broadband rollout, and Britain’s already battered reputation for delivering new infrastructure is taking a further beating. What a mess.