Theresa May’s new government has given the go ahead for Hinkley C nuclear power station. This seems to me to be a deal of mind boggling stupidity. Although the deal has been signed it is far from clear if the reactor will ever work. EDF’s design has been described by technical experts as “unbuildable” and the financial situation as “madness”. Only two reactors of this type have ever been attempted and both are massively over budget, behind schedule and may never be completed due to ongoing technical faults in the reactor vessels, at both Flamanville in France and Olkiluoto in Finland. There are all manner of security and waste management issues that are far from resolved. The initial price tag of £18bn will turn into a figure far higher once the 35 year contract for buying the over-priced electricity is taken into consideration: I’ve seen figures suggesting this could push the total project price up to £24 or £37 bn. All rather fairytale figures if, as I suspect, the project may be a colossal white elephant, and may never actually generate electricity anyway.
Over the last decade two very good and significant trends have emerged in UK electricity generation, as the above graph shows. One is that demand is falling quite steeply. This is due to increased efficiency. The other is the rapidly rising share of renewable energy in the mix. Both these trends could be further enhanced with intelligent government leadership, and fossil fuel use could continue to plummet at the same time as nuclear power could be gradually phased out. Hinkley C was designed for a world that no longer exists, where demand was thought to be increasing and that there was a need for large base-load power stations. What is now needed is flexible load balancing technologies to back-up the growing solar and wind power. The proposed interconnector with Norway, the proposed expansion of pumped storage hydro at Cruachan and the proposed Swansea bay Tidal Lagoon are all excellent examples that the UK should be building.
There is so much more that we could be doing. One idea I’d like to see developed would be to take a city like Liverpool with high unemployment and high rates of fuel poverty and see what could be done to work out a whole city approach to improving things. One could improve the energy efficiency of every property with a coordinated insulation and draft proofing programme and connect every property in the city to a district heating system modelled on that of Copenhagen, and include a huge heat pump taking heat from the Mersey, as Drammen in Norway do from their local fjord. This would create more employment, warmer homes and other benefits for a fraction of the cost of Hinkley C.