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Ringhals nuclear power plant in Sweden by Vattenfall via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
Reactor vessels already cast for the UK's Hinkley C nuclear power station are likely to suffer from serious metallurgical flaws that would compromise their safety - but politicians from all the UK's 'main' parties are still backing the project to the hilt. Photo: Reactor vessel in Ringhals nuclear power plant in Sweden by Vattenfall via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
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No way nukes! Challenging the mainstream 'concensus' for nuclear power

Dr David Lowry

22nd April 2015

All the 'main' political parties are backing nuclear power in bold defiance of all the evidence that it's expensive, dangerous and not even low-carbon, writes David Lowry. Even George Osborne just admitted that Hinkley C is 'unaffordable' - but supports it anyway. For a rational nuclear policy, the way is Green.

How does a project that's 'unaffordable' using low-interest Treasury finance suddenly become a good deal by using much higher cost speculative finance, adding in copious measures of corporate profit, and palming off the expense onto energy users?

On Monday this week the Labour Party published its 'Green Plan', in which it stated: "Labour also supports the development of new nuclear in the UK as part of a more balanced, secure and low carbon energy supply for the future."

In a televised debate on green issues hosted on the BBC on the same day, Labour's shadow energy secretary Caroline Flint pontificated, as if spinning from an EDF Energy briefing sheet, that "nuclear is an important part of the energy mix going forward."

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats make strikingly similar arguments in their manifestos. And let's not forget that at the 2010 election, the LibDems were firmly anti-nuclear - only to become nuclear cheerleaders the moment they got into power.

Then, on Tuesday morning, The Guardian - probably Britain's greenest daily - ran an editorial, 'The Guardian view on Britain's 2015 choice: energy policy', which contained lot of sense on energy sustainability and efficiency.

However it also contains some nonsense on nuclear power, for which it asserted "there is a decent case" in proposing "The deal with EDF on the new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point is the most significant single contribution to meeting the targets for a decarbonised energy supply."

They are all are wrong.

Osborne admits: Hinkley C is unaffordable

By Tuesday afternoon, Conservative Chancellor George Osborne, who, in Autumn of 2013 had travelled to Beijing to fix up finance for the Hinkley Point EPR nuclear power plant gave an interview to the Western Daily Post - the local newspaper covering the Hinkley Point area - in which he revealed that there was no way that Britain as a nation could afford to build the controversial nuclear plant.

Osborne warned that a host of projects from the electrification of the West Country's railways to the proposed tunnel under Stonehenge would have to be scrapped if the Government was forced to step in and fund the building of a the new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point.

"The approach we're taking with the building of Hinkley Point is done in a way that doesn't cost the British taxpayer a huge sum of money", he insisted - referring to his attempts, so far entirely unsuccessful, to lure in investors on the promise of very high guaranteed prices for the power generated, while also providing £10 billion in construction finance guarantees.

It's true that most of the capital cost will be carried not by 'taxpayers' (unless the Treasury guarantee is called in to play) but by energy users through a levy on their bills. But he really was stretching the truth when he added: "Because we are taking this approach we can get modern power stations so families have cheaper and more reliable electricity."

There's nothing cheap about nuclear electricity - and even after it's been paid for, taxpayers will still be burdened with potentially huge liabilities for decommissioning, waste disposal and all the clean-up costs in the event of any serious accident.

Moreover, Osborne failed to address this key question: how does a project that's 'unaffordable' using low-interest Treasury finance suddenly become a good deal by using much higher cost speculative finance, adding in copious measures of corporate profit, and palming off the expense onto energy users?

Pressure vessel flaws

This is the latest blow to the Hinkley C project coming after revelations last week from France that serious safety troubles have been discovered with the steel used in the in the pressure vessel for Hinkley C's French reference plant at Flamanville, under the latter stages of construction in Normandy.

France's nuclear safety regulator, Autorité de Sûreté Nucléaire (ASN) revealed that the steel ordered for the safety casings or 'pressure vessels' for six EPR reactors have been made inaccurately by the Creusot Forge in Burgundy, owned by French nuclear design and construction company Areva, now close to backruptcy.

Astonishingly, two of those pressure vessels were fabricated specifically for Hinkley Point without the order ever being officially placed by EDF - and now it looks like the already failing Areva may have two 'white elephant' billion-euro reactor pressure vessels on its hands with no buyers in sight.

The ASN, which has ordered an investigation, said in a statement: "The nuclear pressure equipment regulation requires that the manufacturer limits the risks of heterogeneity in the materials used for manufacturing the components most important for safety. In order to address this technical requirement, AREVA carried out chemical and mechanical tests on a vessel head similar to that of the Flamanville EPR."

Carbon footprint

Nearly ten years ago The Guardian ran an article by me explaining how and why nuclear power is not low carbon, primarily due to the high carbon footprint of uranium mining, milling and the very energy intensive enrichment to make the uranium suitable for manufacture into nuclear fuel.

The Ecologist further explored the theme recently with an article by Keith Barnham in which he warned: "there is as yet no solid scientific evidence that the carbon footprint for the EPR will be below the Climate Change Committee recommendation of 50 gCO2/kWh. Indeed once the additional carbon emissions are taken into account, it's certain to be considerably above that figure."

A month ago, Brussels-based environment reporter, Arthur Neslen, revealed in an exclusive piece on line that the UK Conservative-LibDem coalition Government had signed up to a lobby letter - with seven other EU countries - calling on the European Commission for increased nuclear aid funding.

In the latter the signatory states misleadingly described nuclear-generated electricity as "carbon-free electricity". This is an important policy debate. But it should be conducted with facts, not fact-free propaganda from nuclear proponents.

So with the Conservatives, Labour and the LibDems resolutely in favour of nuclear power in a stupendous triumph of optimism over evidence, is anyone opposing it? Yes - the Green Party for a start. Its policy EN261 is a rare wonder of rationality in the nuclear debate:

"We will cancel construction of new nuclear stations and nuclear power will not be eligible for government subsidy; the Green Party opposes all nuclear power generation and is particularly opposed to the construction of new nuclear power stations, electricity from which is likely to be significantly more expensive per unit supplied than other low-carbon energy sources, and too slow to deploy to meet our pressing energy needs.

"Cancellation will avoid the costs and dangers of nuclear energy and waste being passed on to future generations long after any benefits have been exhausted."

 


 

Dr David Lowry is an environmental policy and research consultant.

 

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