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The nuclear power plant in the works at Hinkley Point C, in Bristol, to be built by French national power company EDF with the assistance of the Chinese Government, was recently branded “A white elephant” and “worthless” by The Economist. Instead, claims the esteemed magazine, the billions spent on the power plant should be spent on making already viable renewable options work.
The power station, which will be contain two French reactors capable of feeding 7% of Britain’s entire energy requirements, has faced its fair share of controversy, but the British Government, while simultaneously refusing to commit to funding the project, has also committed to giving it “as much money as necessary” to make it work.
This comes as part of the larger deal with China, a much-lauded “golden decade” of friendship and cooperation, which, while toasted and celebrated as Chinese diplomat Xi Jinping enjoyed Buckingham Palace’s hospitality, now seems to be on the rocks, a mere 9 months later.
The central tenet of the deal was to be Hinkley Point C, built by French company EDF and funded by Britain and China – in fact, the Chinese government was to invest £6 billion in the venture, before moving on from that success to build an entirely Chinese nuclear power plant in the South-East of England. However, that central tenet became suddenly precarious when the British Government announced that the plans were now “under review” with a “decision” coming in Autumn.
Following the snubbing of the Chinese investment, the brakes on the “Golden Decade” have been slammed on, and the Chinese state-owned news agency labelled Britain as taking a “deeply suspicious approach” to the whole thing. The move also risks pushing away France, whose government owns EDF energy, and cuts down Britain’s own sources of energy, which are increasingly dependent on aging plants, and the deeply contentious practice of fracking.
Despite all these upsets, however, the analysts at The Economist believe that backing out of the deal is the right decision.
To address the first elephant in the room, the mistrust of the Chinese and the subsequent security worries, which are most likely vastly overblown, is a factor, but even that is nothing compared to how bad the plant would be in terms of value for money. The proliferation of cheap, actionable and decentralised renewable power generation systems means the days of huge, monolithic power plants are coming to a close, it says, and Britain should recognise that sooner rather than later.
EDF, the French Government-owned agency responsible for building the nuclear plant at Hinkley Point C, is currently locked into building a power plant in Finland and one in France which have both been utterly beset by design problems, logistical headaches and safety concerns, which has resulted in both projects going far over their budgets and well past their completion deadlines. Despite this, the British Government previously promised as much money as Hinkley needed to get it off the ground, which calculations based on the problematic Finnish and French builds works out to around double the cost of existing generation plants per unit of electricity produced.
Meanwhile, the plant is guaranteed for 35 years, making it an investment that won’t last, and while the EDF struggles, other technologies speed into the lead. Since 2010 alone, the British Government has succeeded in slashing the projected costs of electricity generation by solar power by 60%, and by onshore wind farms by an impressive 33%. The construction of Hinkley would lock Britain into paying a huge sum for what has already been established as poor value for money – and with the immediate future so uncertain, it’s certainly no time to commit to long-term financial drains, says the Economist.
One of the only things that can be claimed with any certainty about Hinkley is that generation plants of its kind are dying out. Nuclear energy is an effective way to produce low-carbon energy, but with the rapid proliferation of wind and solar technology across Europe, the huge, never-off generators of a monolithic power plant like Hinkley are increasingly falling by the wayside, discarded in favour of more time-efficient solutions that can make up temporary shortfalls in generation caused by dull days or unusually calm wind conditions.
The cutting article finishes with an alternative solution – natural gas plants as an alternative. They can be built for a tiny percentage of the price of Hinkley, run on cheap fuel and can be simply switched off when not required, with no repercussions. While this is going on, the mind-boggling amounts of money put aside for Hinkley could be better spent elsewhere. Investment into better battery technology would solve the problem of intermittent renewable energy generation conditions, and is a field that is rapidly growing – Tesla Motors threw open the doors of its “Gigafactory” recently, while other corporations work on storing excess power in often overlooked places, like the batteries of street lighting and signage, for use when necessary.
Better infrastructure could link Britain’s electricity grid with countries like Iceland where renewable energy is in surplus, and could allow greater international trade of power between increasingly cooperative nations.
Every one of these options, claims the magazine, would be better than a new enormous nuclear plant, which would take over a decade to even begin operations and levy an enormous, on-going cost to the taxpayer, if, they portend ominously, it ever works at all. Using alternative methods would also provide a valuable opportunity to the British Government – the ability to see which advances in the rapidly-evolving field of renewable energy may emerge next.
They may even knit up the British establishment’s relationship with China, since the country developing more of these new technologies than any other nation is China itself. Whichever way you slice it, our relationship will probably be just fine.