Three simple steps the Government should take to shore up nuclear support

Public support for investment in new nuclear plants in Britain can no longer be taken for granted. That is the stark warning from the results of NNWE’s specially commissioned opinion poll which was unveiled last week.

In 2013 substantially more people supported the construction of Hinkley Point C than opposed it. Today the delays which have beset the project in the last three years have eroded three quarters of that margin of support.

The danger now is that unless action is taken to address the issues which are worrying the public then scepticism about Hinkley will spread across into attitudes towards nuclear power in general.

Regular readers of this column know that NNWE’s support for Hinkley and the sterling efforts of EDF management to bring this project to fruition remains unwavering. Nobody who has the interests of the nuclear industry at heart wants Hinkley to fail.

But NNWE exists to support investment in new nuclear plant generally rather than to promote any one technology. Nuclear power is the only way to provide secure low carbon baseload electricity and the problems of one company must not be allowed to jeopardise prospects for the industry as a whole.

The fall in public support for Hinkley has two main causes. There’s frustration at the repeated delays and a growing suspicion that the electricity which it will produce is expensive. Both these concerns have a grain of truth in their origins.

It’s becoming clear that even if the French government provide unlimited financial guarantees EDF still has to overcome internal opposition from trade unions as well as solving the technical problems at Flamanville. The timetable for Hinkley therefore remains uncertain.

At the same time persistent criticisms of the £92.50 strike price are impacting public opinion. Many of these attacks come from entrenched opponents of nuclear who seize any stick to beat the industry with. Nevertheless a rational debate about how to extract the best value for money from nuclear technology is urgently needed.

Another interesting conclusion from our polling is the extent of public opposition to foreign investment in nuclear plant in the UK. EDF may draw some comfort from the fact that France is seen as a slightly less unwelcome shareholder than countries further east but no foreign investor has the support of a majority of the public.

It’s hard to see any rational basis for this concern. A foreign owner who had invested billions in a power station in Britain is scarcely likely to switch it off on a whim. Doing so would destroy any chance of recovering its investment and invite expropriation.

Furthermore a hostile foreign government wanting to damage Britain could do so more effectively and immediately by disrupting the transport system, the water supply or the mobile phone network. But we are not concerned, nor should we be, by the fact that Heathrow Airport, Thames Water and the Three mobile phone network are already owned by foreign investors.

It’s also worth remembering that since 2013, when Centrica withdrew from the Hinkley Point project, there’s been a dearth of British investors coming forward to finance new nuclear plants.

There are three simple steps the government should take to address these issues. None require public spending or new legislation, so Energy and Climate Change Secretary Amber Rudd could act now without even picking up the phone to the Treasury.

  • Firstly it should clarify whether China General Nuclear will be allowed to proceed with constructing Bradwell regardless of how long Hinkley remains stuck at the starting gate. Confirming that a Chinese company can control a British nuclear power station would demonstrate leadership by government on the issue of foreign investment.
  • Secondly it should commission an urgent study of which nuclear technologies offer the best value for money. This would reassure British consumers and taxpayers about its determination to protect their interests and might eventually lead to lower electricity prices.
  • Thirdly it should remind investors that Britain is a country which stands by its word by reiterating its support for completion of Hinkley, provided that EDF can overcome its current challenges. This would discourage prospective lenders and shareholders from seeking a political risk premium when investing in Britain.

Taking these actions now would reiterate Britain’s continued commitment to achieving its carbon emission reduction targets without compromising energy security, stimulate global interest in nuclear investment in Europe and quicken the pulse rate of thousands of talented young people who seek a future in the nuclear industry. What about it Minister?