On 15 September 2016, after a seven week delay to review security concerns, UK Prime Minister Theresa May gave Hinkley Point C, the UK's first new nuclear plant for a generation the go-ahead. Hinkley C, on the north Somerset coast, is being jointly financed by France's EDF, which is investing £12bn and China General Nuclear (CGN), which is investing £6bn.
Hinkley C is a big part of the UK government's plans to create a low carbon energy future. In fact, if built, it will eventually provide around 7% of the UK's electricity needs. However, even if the project goes to plan, it won't start generating any electricity until at least 2026.
The UK has to meet a target of being carbon-free for its energy needs by 2050. Nuclear energy does not produce carbon emissions, so from that point of view, the decision to build at Hinkley makes sense. It is also thought that the project will create up to 25,000 new jobs, which is great for employment in the area and beyond.
However, the potential downsides are considerable. The reactors that will be built at Hinkley (there will be two of them) are based on the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) design. This is regarded as being the safest nuclear reactor design yet and it's also highly efficient, producing a third less waste than older designs.
No EPR reactors have yet been completed, but four are already in construction. At Flamanville on the Normandy coast, EDF's first EPR reactor will become the world's third largest, if and when it comes online, possibly in 2018. Work started at Flamanville in 2007 and since then the project costs have trebled to 10.5bn Euros and it is currently six years behind schedule.
The second EPR reactor, at Olkiluoto in Finland is now nearly a decade late and three times over budget. The other two are being built in China and little is known about their status. The size and increased safety of the EPR design has led to huge complexity and has made building EPRs a construction nightmare. And in 2015, the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN) discovered 'very serious anomalies' in the reactor vessel at Flamanville, raising questions about how safe they really are.
It seems the Hinkley project will carry on, but many environmentalists and politicians argue that there could have been better alternatives. For example, another design, the integral fast reactor (IFR) uses nuclear waste from older reactors as its fuel. Conventional reactors use about 0.6% of the energy contained in the uranium that fuel them. The remaining spent fuel is highly radioactive and dangerous to humans for thousands of years, meaning that it has to be stored securely, and at huge cost.
But IFRs can use up almost all of the energy remaining in the spent fuel of conventional reactors. IFRs are loaded with nuclear material at the start, but then they go on recycling it, extracting most of the available energy and leaving only a small amount of waste. So some new IFRs could have been built to use up existing stocks of spent nuclear fuel (the UK's current stocks could supply IFRs for up to 500 years).
Experts believe that smaller, localised energy generation from a mixture of renewable energy ( particularly solar, wind and tidal energy) and small nuclear reactors could also make up a much better solution for creating low carbon energy generation for the future. This kind of energy production is included in the National Grid's plan for future energy generation and is shown as providing one third of the country's energy needs by 2020. Smaller scale projects, renewable and nuclear, would surely have been cheaper too.
For the government to secure the investment from overseas, it has had to promise to pay £92 per megawatt hour of electricity generated by Hinkley C for thirty-five years. £92 per megawatt hour is double the current cost of producing that energy and the bill will be paid by the UK's consumers. In other words, anyone who uses electricity in their homes will be paying for it, well into the 2050s and beyond. So any young people reading this now need to know that they will be paying for Hinkley in their energy bills for much of their working lives.
Now that the decision to go ahead has been made, it is to be hoped that the project proceeds smoothly and does not encounter the delays and cost overruns suffered by other EPRs. For the future, it is likely to make more sense to encourage smaller projects, based on renewables and small-scale nuclear reactors, rather than adopting any further megaprojects like Hinkley C.
Photo taken by Tom Bastin in November 2014 showing Hinkley Point A and B. The spoil heap in the foreground indicates where Hinkley Point C will be built. Hinkley Point A, a Magnox reactor, was commissioned in 1965 and ceased generation in 2000. Hinkley Point B, an Advanced Gas Cooled reactor, was commissioned in 1976 and is currently operated by EDF and is set to be decommissioned in 2023.