Cooling tower Photo: piqsels.com
Cooling tower Photo: piqsels.com

Dave Carr, East London Socialist Party

The Johnson government is stepping up its commitment to expand nuclear power with the announcement that it is to take a 20% stake in the new ‘Sizewell C’. The pressurised water reactor, being built in Suffolk by the majority state-owned French energy company EDF, is the same design as EDF’s Hinkley C nuclear plant under construction in Somerset.

Government ministers justify this underwriting of the controversial project on the grounds that it is transitioning the economy away from fossil fuels to achieve its net-zero carbon dioxide emissions 2050 target, and to improve ‘energy security’ in the light of the Ukraine war.

Fossil fuel tax breaks

None of this is true. The government continues to give tax breaks and other incentives to ‘big oil’, and the amount of Russian gas imported into the UK makes up less than 4% of what is used. Incidentally, concerns over ‘energy security’ haven’t prevented China’s state-owned General Nuclear Power Corporation from acquiring a minority stakeholding in Hinkley C.

In reality, the government is trying to prop up EDF’s deeply flawed nuclear power programme in the UK.

The existing eight nuclear power stations were sold to EDF after Labour privatised British Energy in 2007, but these old reactors are coming to the end of their useful life and are due to be phased out by 2030.

Brown gave the go-ahead to EDF to build Hinkley C with a new design of pressurised water reactor in 2008. Tory chancellor George Osborne signed the deal in 2012 when the estimated cost was £16 billion.

Under the deal, EDF was guaranteed a wholesale price for its nuclear energy, linked to inflation. If the price (more than double the cost per kilowatt hour compared to renewables) fell below the benchmark, then domestic consumers (us) would make up the difference.

In June 2017, the National Audit Office report on Hinkley C said: “The department (BEIS) has committed electricity consumers and taxpayers to a high-cost and risky deal”.

By January 2021 the estimated construction cost for Hinkley C had risen to an eye-watering £23 billion and it continues to rise. Its start-up date of 2023 has been pushed back to June 2026.

Hinkley C must be the most expensive government job creation programme in history!

However, it’s conceivable that it won’t start at all. Hinkley C’s design is a mirror of EDF’s Flamanville 3 nuclear reactor in northern France, which began construction in 2007. It has been dogged by safety concerns and construction delays. In 2020 it was five times over budget, and the ‘ten-year project’ isn’t expected to actually start generating electricity until 2024. The then French energy minister Barbara Pompili called the project “a mess”.

Why does the UK government push ahead with such a ‘white elephant’? In large part it is ideological, wanting to promote a profit-driven ‘market-based solution’ to meeting energy needs. This is despite the fact that no private consortium would touch large-scale nuclear energy with a barge pole without the investment of massive amounts of public finance

But as the Guardian revealed, the civil nuclear power industry also provides the necessary technical know-how to upkeep the government’s Trident nuclear weapons capability.

The alternative to phasing out fossil fuels is not expensive and toxic nuclear power but investment in green renewables such as wind, solar and wave power. Moreover, a nationwide programme of home and workplace insulation and energy efficiency would massively reduce overall energy demand and create hundreds of thousands of highly skilled jobs. However, such a green energy programme is predicated by public ownership as part of a democratically agreed plan of production – a socialist system.