Whatever the result on Friday, UK Government needs to show decisive leadership on Hinkley
On Friday the referendum campaign will be over to the great relief of everyone except obsessive Brexiteers for whom getting Britain out of the EU will always be their all consuming passion.
After weeks of paralysis the government of Britain will resume. Close to the top of Ministers’ agenda, when they rediscover their desks, should be what to do if EDF announces a further delay for Hinkley Point C.
In the weeks since the referendum campaign stifled debate the technical challenges have not gone away and the opposition of the powerful French trade unions remains strong.
No amount of reassurance from the ever charming Vincent de Rivaz, who made his umpteenth appearance before the House of Commons Energy Select Committee last month, alters the reality that construction of HPC is unlikely to start any time soon.
The whisper in the corridors inside DECC is that at least one senior figure is breathing a sigh of relief. No blame falls on Britain if a project whose costs provoke awkward questions is held up by events across the Channel.
Nevertheless a fresh setback at HPC would be bad for Britain, bad for the industry and bad for people who believe, as I do, that nuclear is an essential part of the world’s response to climate change.
The time for rose tinted spectacles is over. Ministers need to take a hard and urgent look at the available options, regardless of any new warnings about HPC. To maintain public trust this study be open and transparent.
A delay on DECC’s part in drawing up and publishing Plan B opens the field for the anti-nuclear brigade who are itching to dance on Hinkley’s grave. There is also a risk that HPC’s problems may make life harder for Horizon and NuGen too.
In these circumstances the UK now has three broad choices: abandon its nuclear ambitions, keep its fingers crossed that Horizon and NuGen proceed on time and within budget, or seek cheaper and quicker alternatives.
Ministers whose time horizon does not go beyond the next election may be tempted by the first of these. Giving up on nuclear in favour of a new dash for gas would deliver enough affordable – in the short term – electricity to keep the lights on more quickly than new nuclear can.
This option would delight the dwindling band of climate sceptics. Its advocates point to the expectations of abundant gas from diverse sources. They dismiss the risk of gas price rises and ignore the fact that by 2030 there may be a global carbon price.
However it would be a shameful decision for the country which led the world in responding to climate change. Replacing Britain’s ageing nuclear fleet with a string of gas fired power stations would destroy any possibility of honouring our carbon emission reduction commitments.
To choose this option when, in the wake of the Paris agreement, the rest of the world is stepping up efforts to decarbonise the energy industry, would be bizarre. Burdening Britain with high dependence on fossil fuels into the middle of the century would make our economy less competitive as concern about climate change intensifies.
The second alternative is the easy choice. No energy minister will be in post long enough to see its consequences either good or bad. No civil servant will jeopardise his or her promotion prospects by treating the two other projects in the pipeline as the default option in the event of delay at HPC.
But in politics the easy option is seldom right. Both Horizon and NuGen face technical, regulatory and financial hurdles before construction can commence. Neither, even if completed on time, will make a meaningful contribution to Britain’s energy needs much before 2030.
There is a Micawberish dimension to relying entirely on everything going right with these projects, however soundly based and strongly backed they currently are. The dangers of having too many eggs in one basket are already apparent.
So the case for the third option, which still leaves the second one open, is strong. When UAE decided, despite its proximity to unlimited supplies of oil and gas, to diversify away from fossil fuels it concluded that renewables could not meet its requirements in full.
It invited expressions of interest from nine nuclear companies and, after shortlisting three, signed a contract in 2010 with a Korean consortium. Next year the first of four reactors will start to generate electricity at a price which will eventually be below that of gas.
Nor is Korea the only option. NNWE has already urged Government to clarify whether CGN will be allowed to proceed with developing Bradwell in the event of new delays at HPC. The opportunity to do so would be attractive to China who might therefore offer Britain a competitive deal.
A proper study of all available alternatives should address three questions. Will they be built on time, how much will the electricity cost and what proportion of the supply chain will be sourced in Britain? The first of may point to nth of a kind plant already in commercial operation and the other two should be answered by potential vendors.
Contemplating a supplier of nuclear equipment from outside Europe raises wider political issues. The time to address those is after comparing the alternatives, not before. Any nuclear technology deployed in Britain will have to pass the scrutiny of our own trusted regulator, regardless of where it is already in use.
Furthermore public anxiety about using foreign technology, whether from Korea, China or any other non-western source, might be alleviated if the ownership and operation of the plant concerned rested with a UK or EU controlled consortium.
NNWE does not claim to know the answer to all these questions. It’s possible that HPC may still go ahead and the path for Horizon and NuGen may yet be smooth. Small modular reactors may also offer a viable attractive alternative.
But none of these possibilities is yet bankable. It would be rash to bet Britain’s energy security and our ability to cut carbon emissions on successful outcomes to uncertain processes.
Next week Amber Rudd, or her successor if there’s a reshuffle, should reiterate that Britain is serious about investment in new nuclear and about honouring its climate change commitments.
Energy security, sustainability, value for money and jobs will all benefit from decisive leadership on this issue.