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.
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.