We have an amazing opportunity to say No to Nuclear and Hinkley Point B and focus on a future that embraces renewable energy and builds a sustainable future for us all.
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july 29 2016, 12:01am, the times
No Point in Hinkley
Alternatives to the large-scale nuclear power station planned for Somerset are now so numerous that the government should cut its losses and start again
Hours after the French energy giant EDF gave final approval for its investment in the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station last night, the government put the project under review. It was right to do so. The EDF decision is the wrong one for British consumers, Britain’s energy infrastructure and for the company itself. As part of a sensible overhaul of this country’s energy strategy for the next half-century, taking into account fast-changing renewable technologies that could render fossil fuels obsolete within a generation, Hinkley Point needs to be scrapped.
The twin reactors planned for the Somerset site would constitute the biggest and most expensive nuclear power station in the world. Their combined capacity would power five million homes and help to make up a shortfall that the National Grid already has to remedy by paying inflated prices to existing power producers. But EDF’s design is unproven and unaffordable. The project as a whole is too dependent on Chinese investment. Even EDF is not wholly behind it. Last year its chief financial officer resigned rather than support it. Yesterday a board member quit for the same reason.
Hinkley Point C was supposed to produce electricity from next year. The earliest date now envisaged is 2025. If that were plausible the project might still be worth considering. In reality two plants of the same design now under construction in Finland and France are years behind schedule and billions over budget after a series of technical problems. Two more in China have been built faster and more cheaply but have yet to enter service.
EDF has modified the design for France’s own modernisation plans. It is absurd to persist with the discredited version at Hinkley Point, especially when there are so many alternatives.
The US, Japan and Britain’s own Rolls-Royce produce smaller nuclear reactors that could fit more flexibly and much less expensively into our future energy mix. Gas-powered stations can be built in as few as two years once planning requirements have been met, and are the cleanest, most efficient bridge to a low-carbon supply as Britain’s last coal-powered plants are phased out.
Most auspiciously, recent advances in artificial photosynthesis offer the prospect of a solar power revolution that is likely to pull renewables from the fringe to the centre of the energy industry within the lifetime of any nuclear plant under construction today. Last month a team from Harvard announced a breakthrough towards “artificial leaves” that can produce liquid fuel from sunlight, water and carbon dioxide — as plants do, but with up to ten times the efficiency. A second project, at the University of Illinois, has achieved the same trick with low-cost catalysts built into solar panels producing burnable gas rather than electricity. The process solves the energy storage problem that conventional solar power can only address with batteries.
Artificial photosynthesis has long been seen as a holy grail of energy science because its output is carbon-neutral and its input, the sun, is limitless. Its commercialisation will take time, but that of traditional solar panels is far advanced. Falling in price by an average of 10 per cent a year, they are expected to produce a fifth of the planet’s power within a decade.
Energy planners must be nimble enough to embrace these new technologies. To proceed with Hinkley Point C instead is to be held hostage to a design that is outdated before it is built and will never be commercially viable. The strike price agreed by Britain for EDF is twice the current wholesale price for electricity. The evidence suggests that Britain and France are pressing ahead with Hinkley Point C to save the blushes of successive governments that put their faith in it without paying enough attention to its many flaws. Shame on them.