Negotiations between EdF, the state-owned French energy company, and the Government over the proposed new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in Somerset are at a crucial stage.
The sticking point appears to be the “strike price” — what we will all end up paying for power from the new reactor. If it is set too high or the contract is too long, consumers will foot an unnecessarily expensive bill for decades to come.
It is rumoured that £96-97 per megawatt-hour (MWh) has been agreed. But is that fair? Clearly it is a premium to current power prices, which struggle to get over £60/MWh. So why should consumers pay it?
One answer trotted out will be that the power will be “low carbon”, but onshore wind already costs less than this (about £90/MWh) and that industry is striving to get costs down even more. So that can’t be it.
Second, it is argued that the UK must lead a nuclear renaissance. But the technology we are buying, the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), is a 1960s retread. Genuinely new nuclear options are being worked on around the world, but that isn’t what the UK is investing in.
Third, supporters of the deal claim that it will stimulate the UK supply chain. The only problem is that we are buying French technology from a French provider and French developer. So that’s not it, either.
Fourth, people say that nuclear will ease concerns over security of supply. But those concerns are about the next five years and no one expects a new nuclear station to be available before 2020.
Finally, some might argue that, as an established technology, nuclear power is predictable and robust. But experience of the only two EPRs being built in Europe, at Flamanville, in France, and Olkiluoto, in Finland, suggests exactly the opposite. Both are very late and very over budget.
So why are we doing it? I really am at a loss to answer.
We all agree that the UK must attract investment in a mixture of energy sources to keep the lights on and meet legally binding carbon-reduction targets. But affordability is just as important. Public subsidy should be targeted at technologies that will become cost-competitive in the long run.
A few years ago EdF proudly said that it didn’t need a subsidy to build nuclear. If that is no longer true, I struggle to see why we should all pay a premium over the other options. I see no reason why a combination of new gas, renewables and energy efficiency cannot bridge the energy gap for the next five to ten years while we let the nuclear industry get its costs down and improve its track record on delivery.
This article was first published in The Times on Tuesday 19 March 2013 and can be viewed here.