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The true cost of the three nuclear power stations at Sizewell, England were concealed under state ownership. But they still cost us a bomb. Photo: Mark Seton via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
The true cost of the three nuclear power stations at Sizewell, England were concealed under state ownership. But they still cost us a bomb. Photo: Mark Seton via Flickr (CC BY-NC).
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Nuclear power is expensive everywhere!

David Toke

7th September 2015

The notion that nuclear is cheaper outside the UK is a myth, writes David Toke. Yes, it looks more expensive here - but only because new stations like Hinkley C have to compete in an electricity marketplace, making it harder to conceal the true costs like we used to.

It is not that nuclear power is more expensive in the UK, but that it is only in the UK that something vaguely approaching a estimate of nuclear costs on the same basis as other technologies has been attempted.

The Britons attitude to the notion that nuclear power is not cheap after all is a bit like a child who first hears that Father Christmas does not, after all, exist.

Disbelief, and in this case a belief that if only Father Christmas is nationalised, then it will still be true.

The psychologists call this cognitive dissonance, in other words if a fact is uncomfortable to you, you believe that the fact is wrong.

The belief that somehow nuclear power will be cheaper if somehow it is done differently here has been stoked by a recent IEA Report which says that British nuclear power, in the shape of the proposed contract for Hinkley C, is the most expensive in the world.

In fact the IEA report is heavily reliant on a limited number of projections of costs, which in the world of nuclear power is a fantasy world in itself.

However what is more apparent is that it is not so much that nuclear power is more expensive in the UK so much that it is only in the UK that something vaguely approaching a estimate of nuclear costs on the same basis as other energy technologies has been attempted. This is because of the need to make nuclear at least look like it was fitting into the contours of what passes for a competitive electricity generation market in the UK.

Of course nuclear power looks expensive if you do it that way. because it is! (assuming you want to treat nuclear power on the same costing basis as other energy sources). Even this (Hinkley C) comparison is somewhat biased towards nuclear because other technologies don't get 35 year contracts, and they don't get a Government offer to underwrite 60% of the projected construction costs.

So, the Government's declared price for Hinkley C is, in reality an underestimate of nuclear power costs compared to other energy sources. This is even more the case since the plant hasn't even started construction yet.

Plucked out of thin air while wearing rose tinted spectacles?

I'm scratching my head as to how the IEA could have come to the conclusion it did. The French EPR is now several years behind schedule in its construction and is said to now cost three times more than its original estimate (already!). As for the Finnish EPR, well, that cost just goes off the scale.

Even if you look at other reactors being built in the West, the high costs are also much in evidence. The AP1000 reactors being built in the USA are as expensive as the EPR. And the claims circulating about how the proposed Hitachi project will go better than Hinkley C are more exercises in fantasy.

There's a lot of stories about how much cheaper nuclear power is in China. Well, I don't know whether anybody has noticed this, but easily analysable information on costs of nuclear construction in China is about as scarce as it was from the old British CEGB on a bad day - and it was, apart from the occasional leak, usually a very bad day.

But recent commentary of the Chinese nuclear programme is not especially encouraging: Take for example this article from the Global Times, whose news items seem to run in parallel with the priorities of the Chinese Government:

"Since 2004, China has been approving projects using advanced nuclear power reactors, including US-based Westinghouse's AP1000 and France-based Areva's EPR (Evolutionary Power Reactor), many of which are now under construction. Dubbed generation III reactors, they are designed to withstand the crisis that damaged the Japanese nuclear plant.

"Construction of these projects has not been smooth. Sanmen Nuclear Power Station in Zhejiang Province was expected to be the first nuclear power plant in the world that uses AP1000 technology. The first of the two reactors was scheduled to finish construction and start operation in November 2013, but construction is now over 18 months behind schedule. The plant won't start operation until 2016 at the earliest, an official from China's State Nuclear Power Technology, the company building the power plant, said in January."

Of course the Chinese Government has some grandiose plans for nuclear power construction. So did the UK Government back in 2010!

Nationalisation won't make nuclear power cheaper - but it will help with fiddling the figures

So where is the British flight into 'nuclear power is cheap somewhere' fantasy leading us? Well, to nationalisation, of course, a charge led by the IPPR, a centre-left think tank, which I suppose, is a more plausible vehicle for this than, say, a right leaning think tank such as Policy Exchange (who, incidentally, have recently discovered that onshore wind power is reasonable cheap after all and should be offered some contracts).

Nationalisation won't make nuclear power any cheaper. The claims that somehow the 'cheaper' money from the state will make the technology less expensive ignore some relevant facts. First, the Hinkley C deal already has access to state backed finance through the agency of the state owned (French and Chinese) companies that are building the plant and the state guaranteed loan offered by the UK Treasury.

Setting up a state body to compete with others in the electricity market will also generate a further (interesting) EU state aid application. But really the talk of cheap state money, is not the key point that the nuclear people are aiming at.

What the pro-nuclear lobby now wants is for limitless sums of money to be siphoned off from public spending on education, health and whatever else and spent on building nuclear power stations. The money will be notionally borrowed, a contract that will be concocted that will claim that the electricity consumer will pay the money back at a later date, and the balance will be paid for by, well, less schools, hospitals etc.

Meanwhile a story will be manufactured about how all of this is cheap. Cognitive dissonance will prevent people asking why if it is ok to fund nuclear power this way, then why isn't it ok to fund offshore winfarms and other things.

Of course, even this isn't 'the crack' as a Liverpudlian friend of mine used to put it. The 'crack' is that the state will end up giving the whole project a blank cheque so that the disastrous construction process can be bankrolled entirely from a bottomless pit of state finances.

Talk about allegedly 'cheap' money from the Government is just a cover for what the nuclear people are really aiming for. A cost-plus contract, spend however much you want contact, a blank cheque. The road towards this will no doubt be littered with pretend signposts, like they'll be a tender process etc, but at the end of the day nothing will happen until the blank cheque has been sent.

I have been pleasantly surprised to see that the UK Government has not signed such a thing. The Treasury has not been pushed into accepting this (one thing that me and George Osborne agree about). Yet.



David Toke is Reader in Energy Politics at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Aberdeen. 

This article was originally published on David Toke's Green Energy Blog.


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