Michał Bazan is a political researcher with the British Conservation Alliance.
Ten years ago, the coalition government issued a revised statement on its energy policy to meet the target of at least one new nuclear power plant in the UK by 2020. She identified eight possible construction sites for nuclear power plants.
Toshiba’s withdrawal from Moorside power station in Cumbria, followed by Hitachi, who abandoned both the Oldbury project in South Gloucestershire and the Wyffa Newydd project in Wales, raised difficult questions about the future of nuclear power in the UK. While the 2020 target is now unreachable, the upcoming approval of the Sizewell C power plant in Suffolk gives us hope for a more innovative and environmentally friendly future.
This future is hard to imagine without nuclear power as the country’s main energy source. Renewable sources like wind and sun must be part of a newly built system, but cannot completely replace an efficient and reliable energy source like an atom. Nuclear power accounts for 21 percent of the UK’s electricity generation, which is higher than many other European countries. The disadvantage is that only one of the operating systems will be available by 2030. Action is required now.
Concern by some about the high price we are paying now (Sizewell C is said to cost around £ 20 billion) shouldn’t overshadow our profits (not necessarily monetary ones) going forward. While operating costs are similar to coal-fired power plants, a solid 3.2 gigawatts of energy can provide six million homes with electricity without paying the high price of pollution – a price that is often overlooked because of premature deaths and other societal costs are difficult to quantify.
The investment in Sizewell C appears to be a good combination of an innovative approach and experience from building Hinkley Point C (a dual power plant expected to be completed by 2023). The latter helps save time and money on the project. This is vital because extending the construction work is very expensive.
In addition, the timing of the investment gives hope that the benefits of Sizewell C will increase as more and more innovative ideas emerge. New, more efficient fuels may be introduced, better ways to store or reuse nuclear waste, or the possibility of obtaining valuable chemical substances (for example, to be used for medical purposes).
The key is to do what the UK government promised a decade ago – avoid spending excessive public money on energy liberalization. EDF, a principal designer of the Sizewell C plant, is a subsidiary of a company that is partially owned by the French state. Although not entirely free from the hand of the state, this is a step in the right direction.
The government should focus on finding a smart way to manage the finances of the project so that the major decisions are made by scientists and managers, rather than politicians. The main concern of investors is potential liability in the event of a nuclear accident.
The government proposed a CFD (Contract for Difference System that “insures” against the change in the present and future value of an asset) but is now considering using a more stimulating and investor-friendly RAB (regulated asset base) system for the Sizewell C construction in which the Developers are guaranteed a safe return on their investment.
It is worth mentioning that a (even partial) privatization of the energy sector does not mean a brutal pursuit of short-term profits. Price and quality of service aren’t the only things that count – corporate social responsibility and corporate reputation pay off over the long term. EDF knows this and is focused not only on providing the UK with a clean and safe source of energy, but also on doing so together with the local Suffolk community.
The Sizewell C project will be a seismic endeavor employing nearly 8,000 people on site – many of them on site. EDF is listening carefully to the voice of the local population, leading to a recent change to the project to limit trucking traffic to reduce the negative impact on residents and the environment. EDF is working with the National Trust to ensure the Dunwich Heath and Beach area is not adversely affected and the 30 day public consultation will take place to take into account the views of opponents such as TASC (“Together Against Sizewell C”) .
The Chernobyl disaster made it easy to see nuclear energy as a threat rather than a possibility (although its reliability has been proven). But it wasn’t the technology that was flawed – it was the totalitarian regime of the USSR that made it impossible to use that technology safely and efficiently. Now the UK has an opportunity to show the other side of the coin – how innocuous results can be achieved through unrestrained innovation, technological advancement and the free market.
Sizewell C could become one of the symbols of the new green era and an inspiration for others to follow. We just need to create a political, legal and economic environment in which innovation and progress can take place, and that means investing in technology that works.