‘Like a bride left at the altar’ – latest news from Hinkley C

Yesterday I visited the site of Hinkley C, the proposed EPR reactor in north Somerset which will – whenever it finally happens – be the UK’s largest-ever single low-carbon power generation investment. The two units will have a combined electrical output of 3.2 gigawatts, large enough to power 5 million homes and avoid 10 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year.

Driving around the site in a 4×4 with a site manager, I was impressed at the sheer scale of the effort: it will cover a huge area, all of which is now fenced off and ready for construction to begin. Rare species of bat have been moved, badgers protected, 16,000 trees planted, and archaeological digs on the south side of the site completed. At its peak, 5,600 construction staff will be working on site, and a temporary 500-bed ‘campus’ will be put up as well. An electricity sub-station is currently under construction in order to power the site works. Everything is ready to go.

HinkleyC1

And yet the whole site has an air of being in limbo. Hinkley C feels a bit like a jilted bride left at the altar – the government has prepared a ‘wedding’ via electricity market reform to support low-carbon investment, and yet has been consistently unable to reach an agreement with EDF on the specifics of the deal. Time is dragging on: the groom was originally supposed to show up last December, and nothing happened. It is now late May, and there is still no sign of a decision being imminent. You would hardly believe that this is the UK’s flagship low-carbon investment, on which investor confidence in all new nuclear depends.

Because nothing is happening, the team on the site is now being ‘downsized’. People are being reassigned, and some are losing their jobs. Skilled workers are going elsewhere. Portacabins which have been laid down around the car park in preparation for work to begin are due to be taken away again within the next few days. If anything, the place is winding down. There is no prospect now of meeting the original 2018 commissioning deadline, leaving the prospect of a power generation gap as older nuclear stations close down within the next decade.

“I’ve been here two years,” one of the senior managers told me. “Now we seem to be going backwards. It’s disappointing.”

Everyone knows what they have to do – the first stage in construction will be a gigantic ‘earthworks’ contract, worth hundreds of millions, to level the ground, pour concrete and lay down electrics. Then there’s the nuclear steam supply contract (the reactors), marine works (the cold water intake and outfall in the Bristol Channel; mainly tunnelling work) and the ‘main civils’ – all the buildings, both permanent and temporary. Companies, such as Areva, Keir Bam, Laing O’Rourke and so on are already lined up as ‘preferred bidders’. They are all waiting.

Even when/if a ‘strike price’ for Hinkley C’s electricity is finally agreed, this is not the final step. Then EDF has to raise the estimated £14 billion that the project construction will cost from potential investors. In today’s economic climate there is no guessing how easy this will be. Perhaps investors will flood in to a safe bet backed by national governments in both the UK and France. Or perhaps they will balk at the sheer scale of the thing, and the political risk inherent in nuclear investments (for the billions that politicians can cost utilities, you only need look to Germany).

In the meantime, Hinkley B is still humming away. Although yesterday one of the two AGR reactors was shut down, when I was shown around the turbine halls I was pleased to see the second generating a consistent 540MW. I was even allowed to walk about on top of the reactor core, where squares in the ground mark fuel channels and show the configuration of the core. This was quite a treat, and required the donning of full ‘personal protective equipment’ and at least four separate radioactivity checks afterwards. (All came up negative, and our dosimeter registered ‘0’ microsieverts even on top of the reactor itself.)

The site is in a very exposed location, and it was very windy the entire time. I suggested to my hosts from EDF that Hinkley C could be accompanied by a big wind farm investment. This had already been thought of, I was surprised to find out – a proposed wind turbine array of 9 turbines had been originally mapped out. Yet the idea has been dropped, because it set off a firestorm of public opposition. Oh, the irony.

14 comments

  1. Leo Smith says:

    ” I was surprised to find out – a proposed wind turbine array of 9 turbines had been originally mapped out. Yet the idea has been dropped, because it set off a firestorm of public opposition. Oh, the irony.”

    what irony? Hinkley resident like most rural people whop live near nuclear power stations would far far rather have a reliable 100 acre site dedicated to safe reliable nuclear power than the WHOLE of a county covered in windmills, that wouldn’t last as long or produce as much and cost just the same and need backups and wires strewn everywhere.

    Nuclear power, once you strip away the panic, lies and the BS is infinitely preferable on every logical metric, to windmills.

    The sad fact is with politicians heavily subsidising cosmetic ‘green’ solutions that don’t solve anything, the nuclear operators face huge political risks in being shut down by Diktat, and cannot afford to take the risk, without substantial guarantees on short term income.

  2. Leon says:

    The irony is that the local population rather has nuclear over wind, the whole country needs a reliable clean power supply in the future, but government is unable to make it happen for some unidentified reason…

    • Alex says:

      Well, we do need nuclear power, but perhaps not at any price. I think EDF has been trying to blackmail (“Pay us this or we don’t build Hinkley and you don’t get nuclear power”) the Government into getting a higher strike price (So that they can’t make a losss even if they get another Finnish experience).

      There might be a case for the government to set up “New Nuclear Co” and commission the reactors from the best supplier, which, according to many informed people would not be the EPR.

  3. jmdesp says:

    I think what would unlock the situation were if the public had a clear view of how much would an offshore wind alternative actually cost.

    There was a huge strategic mistake done about Hinkley, people have no reference point about how much a contract for difference for offshore wind would be instead because none has been approved until now.

    Maybe EDF should come back and clearly say that actually Hinkley is not really needed to generated about 25 TWh a year, that alternatively a offshore wind farm generating as much could be built, and tell the government :
    – Option A : Hinkley, this setting, this strike price, this many jobs created
    – Option B : Hinkley Alternative Wind Offshore Parc, this setting, this strike price, this many jobs created

    Do people realize that offshore projects in Final Investment Decision in 2011 had a cost stabilizing around £140 per MWh ? (see http://www.thecrownestate.co.uk/tcform/TandCsDialog?f=%2fmedia%2f305094%2fOffshore+wind+cost+reduction+pathways+study.pdf&fn=Offshore+Wind+Cost+Reduction+Pathways+Study&m=1)

    They are claims it’s possible to go down to £100 by 2020, but for very large projects it’s more or less only the ones already at investment decision stage now that will be fully online in 2020, so at 2013 FID price.

    And actually not all project are at this cost, some have been more expensive. Depending on the perimeter, there might very well be some additional cost for the project to be an exact replacement for Hinkley since in my understanding part of the Hinkley high cost is that it includes everything needed to connect the plant to the grid.

    The French offshore project of 2012 that EDF is also doing is even more expensive at about £190 all cost included, except that all costs are not really included since it will also require a reinforcement of the French grid to transport the power outside of Brittany.

  4. G.R.L. Cowan says:

    How much does the government stand to make on natural gas for each year Hinkley C is delayed?

  5. Clyde Davies says:

    Most of the opposition – in fact virtually all of it – to wind farms is based upon total hypochondria and Nimbyism. This study exposes this: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/alternative_energy/2013/03/wind_turbine_syndrome_debunking_a_disease_that_may_be_a_nocebo_effect.html

  6. quokka says:

    Among all the problems with Hinkley C a reminder that the most recent build of nuclear power in the UK – Sizewell B was completed basically on time and within budget. The project won a couple of prestigious construction and civil engineering awards.

    http://www.imeche.org/docs/default-source/public-affairs/Nuclear_Lessons_Learned.pdf?sfvrsn=0

    I think the EPR cause will be helped a bit when the first EPR comes online in China which is planned for early 2014. Currently the two European EPRs under construction are a very easy target for the naysayers.

  7. Hector Balint says:

    The construction cost of the EPR in Finland is presently estimated at 9 billion euros having started out back in 2005 nearer 3 billion. That is for a self-evident and admitted fiasco with no certain end in sight. You state that the ante for Hinkley is now a mere £14bn! This is Alice in Wonderland not Great Expectations.

  8. Dan Widdon says:

    Mark,

    Your Hinky host is either lying, or ignorant of my proposal when I worked on the associated development (campus as you called it) of homes for the workforce.

    As the sustainability engineering consultant asked to greenwash this huge white elephant, my suggestion of a wind turbine to power the homes was laughed at by the contractor.

    EDF stated that it didn’t want anyone to exploit the hypocrisy argument that would be leveled at EDF if anyone were to photograph a wind turbine with their reactor houses in the background.

    Local opinion to the change to the landscape of another power station reactor, let alone an array of turbines to exploit the abundant wind resources of this isolated location, we too threatening to have been canvassed by the EDF team.

  9. Andrew Gould says:

    There is that scene in Life of Brian when the Judean People’s Popular Front are shouting at the People’s Popular Front of Judea….Much the same seems to happen when people talk about low carbon energy. It immediately dissolves into an argument about tidal vs solar vs hydro vs wind vs nuclear. What is needed is to recognise the common enemy which is all fossil fuels (Coal, shale gas, oil, gas) and then develop a policy that uses a mixture of low-carbon energy sources scaled to the extent that they can scale. I would advocate all low carbon energy sources of wind, nuclear, solar, hydro, tidal. (though not bio-fuels as that has such an impact on food prices in less developed countries) When you look at how they scale in the UK, let’s put the energy recipe at 20% offshore wind, 75% nuclear and the remaining 5% solar, tidal, geo-thermal, onshore wind. (and these are very very rough figures). I would be much more interested to hear about the different forms of nuclear, particularly nuclear reprocessing in all its guises. Surely re-using existing nuclear waste should be given more serious consideration?

  10. Andrew Gould says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MlMDDhQ9-pE

    A 4 minute youtube video on nuclear recycling. Umm, is there a catch?… or is the solution to the energy needs of the world for the next few hundred years without frying the planet?

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