Civil servants must speak out: 'the time has gone for nuclear power'

The Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site from Drigg Beach, Cumbria, UK. Photo: Ashley Coates via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
The Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site from Drigg Beach, Cumbria, UK. Photo: Ashley Coates via Flickr (CC BY-SA).

It will probably cost £100 billion to clean up the severely contaminated Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site in Cumbria, seen here from Drigg Beach. Photo: Ashley Coates via Flickr (CC BY-SA).

Despite the PR spin the truth about nuclear power is clear, says Paul Flynn. Current projects are plagued with technical failures, cost escalations and long delays - while renewables power ahead. As tin-eared ministers refuse to get the message, it's time for civil servants to speak out direct to the public.
Civil servants who know the new ethos in the civil service should regard it as their patriotic duty to speak truth, not only to power but to the nation, by saying that the time for nuclear power is over.

Nuclear power was promised as an energy source that would be too cheap to meter. It is now too expensive to generate.

If we were planning a nuclear policy from scratch, would we choose to do a deal with two French companies, one of which is bankrupt, while the other, Électricité de France, has a debt of €33 billion?

Would we also collaborate with a country with a dreadful human rights record - China, whose national investment department is coming into the arrangement - and with Saudi Arabia, with its atrocious record on human rights, where people are executed on the street?

We are left with the dregs of investment from throughout the world-fragile and tainted. The sensible money deserted Hinkley Point years ago. Centrica had an investment of £200 million, and it abandoned it and ran away, because it saw the project as a basket case.

Still, nuclear power has wide support in the House of Commons, from almost all parties except the Scottish National Party [and the Greens]. I hope that the new Minister, Andrea Leadsom, whom I welcome to her new work, can apply her distinguished forensic skills to taking a fresh look at the situation.

The public has been 'protected' from the truth of Fukushima

Many people are gravely disturbed by the prospect of new nuclear power. That is particularly so among Treasury civil servants. We are in an extraordinary situation, where there is still public support in spite of Fukushima.

One of the main reasons for that is that the British public were 'protected' by a skilled public relations operation from knowing the terrible cost of Fukushima - between $100 billion and $250 billion. Radiation is still leaking four years after the event, and tens of thousands of people cannot return to their homes.

Other populations were not protected from knowing about Fukushima by an obedient press. However, former lobbyists for nuclear power appeared as independent witnesses, such as Malcolm Grimston, who was on television every day during the Fukushima events, praising the explosions of hydrogen as something of benefit.

There is ludicrous PR spin, to the extent that this week two different people from a public relations agency that works for nuclear power rang me up and offered to write my speech for me. They inquired who the Chair would be, as if that might be important. Those are lobbyists and spinners, presenting a favourable case for nuclear power.

'Not enough electricity to light a bicycle lamp'

Hinkley Point B is a European Pressurised Reactor. There are some under construction in Finland, France and China. Not one of them has produced enough electricity to light a bicycle lamp. They are all in serious trouble, so why do we continue with our belief in Hinkley Point C?

The EPR in Finland was due to generate electricity in 2009. There has been a series of delays, problems and cost overruns, which have themselves now overrun, and the bill is €4 billion greater than anticipated. The possible opening date has been moved year after year and is now set at 2016, at a cost of €8.3 billion. However, other problems have come up.

Civil servants who know the new ethos in the civil service should regard it as their patriotic duty to speak truth, not only to power but to the nation, by saying that the time for nuclear power is over.

There is another station under construction at Flamanville. It was due to be completed at a cost of €3.3 billion and now has an overrun of nearly €5 billion. There is a serious problem at Flamanville which will affect all the reactors - the carbon level in the steel for the pressure vessel is too high. That means that the steel is brittle and could crack open, with catastrophic results.

That affects the planned reactors in China, Finland, France and of course at Hinkley Point. It is a catastrophic problem and will mean a major delay. There is no way of reconstituting that steel.

Hinckley C: 'a deal at any price'

The way the deal was done is almost unbelievable. We agreed under pressure, because there were Government promises and political pressure, to do a deal at almost any price to justify Hinkley Point C. We struck a deal for £92.50 per MWh. That is twice the going rate for electricity now, and we said that we would guarantee that deal for 35 years.

That was two years ago. Since then, the price of energy throughout the world has gone down a great deal, because of shale gas and the drop in the price of oil. The price we agreed was ludicrous at the time - far too generous.

The head of INEOS, the company in Grangemouth, has struck a deal since then with the same company - Électricité de France - for less than half that price. The country was ripped off, and we cannot seem to get out of it. We must do something about the strike price that we agreed.

In the world as a whole, nuclear powered energy generation peaked in 2006. Since then it has been in decline. It has gone down by 10% in Europe. Most energy consultants say that the total cost of the project is indefensible.

We omit something from our calculations of historical costs and pretend that nuclear is cheap, when we forget about the cost of waste. In fact we do not know what the cost of the waste from Sellafield is. We are still adding up the bill.

The latest estimate for clearing up Sellafield - just one site - is £53 billion. It is thought that the figure will exceed £100 billion eventually. When those costs are added to the historical costs of nuclear power it will not be found to be competitive any more.

Also, we now have alternatives. We are not in a situation where nothing else is available. The world has moved towards renewables, including the clean renewables, to a far greater extent.

The Government are to be congratulated on having put forward a package and the money for tidal lagoons in the Severn estuary. An enormous tide of water sweeps up that estuary twice a day. That is vast untapped energy - British, free, eternal and entirely predictable. The technology involved is simple and has been working successfully in France for 50 years, producing the cheapest electricity in the world.

Whatever happened to the LibDems' 'Say No to Nuclear?'

It is a curious thing, but the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the previous Parliament had an impeccable record on energy some years ago, when he launched the Liberal Democrat energy policy under the heading 'Say No to Nuclear', saying that "a new generation of nuclear power stations will cost taxpayers and consumers tens of billions of pounds."

That is absolutely right. He went on: "In addition to posing safety and environmental risks, nuclear power will only be possible with vast taxpayer subsidies or a rigged market".

That was the man who, when the red boxes and chauffeur-driven car arrived, changed his mind altogether and did a terrible financial deal to get Hinkley Point on the road. We will be paying for that for many years.

The cost of Hinkley Point has been estimated as an additional £200 a year for every consumer in Britain. That is billions of pounds in subsidy over 35 years. The Government have guaranteed £16 billion in subsidy for a technology that has not been proved to work and is not working anywhere. Almost any alternative is better than pressing on with Hinkley Point.

There are older nuclear designs that we could use, but we are heading into a technological jam where there will be difficulties. We are proposing to invest tens of billions in a system that has not been proved to be effective, and has certainly never proved to be economic.

There have been many problems at Flamanville, near Cherbourg, which are not limited to the pressure vessel. There have also been problems with the valves and the whole cooling system, following a warning in April from the French nuclear safety regulator about an excessive amount of carbon in the reactor vessel.

That is not a journalist causing trouble but the head of the French nuclear industry talking about a potential disaster in the making.

The certainty of nuclear disaster

What is likely to happen in future? There is a nuclear disaster almost every 10 to 15 years, due to various causes. The result of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima has been great fear among the population.

That is what happened in Germany, which felt the full force of the truth about Fukushima and sensibly cancelled its whole nuclear programme. Germany is now going into solar power and many other alternatives that are available to us. Tidal power is not available to Germany, but we have that great opportunity ahead.

There will almost certainly be problems in future. Some hazards today were unknown in the past. I recall going to an exhibition called 'Atoms for Peace' as a young boy in 1948, when we believed that nuclear would be the answer, but experience has taught us otherwise.

The possible accidents range from simple mechanical errors, such as not having enough carbon in the steel, to the simple human errors that happened at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Technical faults also occur, but the greatest risk we now face is terrorism.

Older nuclear power stations were not built to withstand terrorist attacks by drones and all the means by which people could attack them. Anyone living anywhere near a nuclear power station must be in a state of anxiety about that possibility, because of the accidents and disasters we have seen.

Fukushima was built to withstand a tsunami, but it could not withstand the tsunami and earthquake that came together. Any of these natural disasters are possible. We have not had a tsunami for some time along the Severn estuary, but we had one in 1607 when part of the area that I represent and the area where Hinkley Point now stands was flooded by a tsunami that came up the Bristol Channel.

It is believed to have come from underwater activity out in the deep ocean, so a tsunami is unlikely but possible there. We cannot guard against it. Why on earth risk a catastrophic accident when alternatives are available?

Civil servants - speak your concerns in public!

I am encouraged to see reports that many civil servants in the Treasury are deeply unhappy about the financial situation of nuclear power. There was a story that if Labour had been elected, it would have turned its back on nuclear power. I believe that to be true.

There have been reports in The Times and elsewhere - authoritative reports from serious journalists - that groups in the Treasury are saying that it will be a terrible mistake and a financial catastrophe if we go ahead. May I say to those civil servants that it is their job to speak publicly?

We know now what happened in Scotland during the referendum debate, when Sir Nicholas Macpherson decided to leak - to publish - a report of his advice to the Chancellor. His reason for doing so was that he thought the likely effects of Scottish independence would be catastrophic for the country and for Scotland.

He justified that leak, which was almost unprecedented among senior civil servants, on the basis that it was in the national interest. He was supported by the head of the civil service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, and condemned by a Committee of this House.

Look at the past; look, for example, the commercial advantages of the steam-generating heavy water reactor, which produced nothing and was useless, but cost £200 million. That was many years ago. There was also the decision to treat Concorde as a commercial venture that would succeed.

There were civil servants who quite rightly opposed those, but the ethos of the civil service is the unimportance of being right. The careers of civil servants who go along with the ministerial folly of the day prosper, while the careers of those who are right in the long term wither.

It is different now. There is some heroism in civil servants speaking truth to power and saying to their masters, "This should not go on. There are alternatives. The time has gone for nuclear power."

Civil servants who know the new ethos in the civil service should regard it as their patriotic duty to speak truth, not only to power but to the nation, by saying that the time for nuclear power is over.



Paul Flynn is the Member of Parliament (MP) for Newport West since the 1987 general election.

This article is based on the speech he gave in Westminster Hall on 17th June. See the Hansard transcript for the original version and ensuing debate with energy minister Andrea Leadsom.

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