Nuclear zombie? Hinkley C build won't start until 2019 - if at all!

Poster for the film 'The Plague of the Zombies'. Photo: Huysamen Engelbrecht via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
Poster for the film 'The Plague of the Zombies'. Photo: Huysamen Engelbrecht via Flickr (CC BY-SA).
Nuclear giant EDF can't afford to write off the £2 billion sunk into the Hinkley C nuclear plant, write Paul Brown & Oliver Tickell. So its cunning plan is to turn it into a 'nuclear zombie' - officially a live project, but actually stone cold dead - until EDF can find a way out of the hole it has dug itself into.
A final investment decision to go head may, in fact, be no such thing. The company could just be planning to keep a few earth movers trundling about on the site to give the appearance of activity while it seeks a graceful way out.

The future of the nuclear industry in Europe took another blow this week when the French state-owned power company EDF again postponed a final decision on whether to build two large nuclear power stations in the UK.

And most tellingly, the company has just revealed that construction will now not start before 2019 - even in the event of a 'final investment decision' to go ahead with the project, which could be announced within weeks.

The final investment decision on building two European Pressurised Water Reactors (EPRs) had been expected on Tuesday last week, but it emerged on Monday that it was to be postponed because the company had still to secure enough backing to finance the £18 billion (€23.26 bn) project.

But to save face with shareholders the company claimed that Chinese New Year celebrations had held up negotiations with the Chinese backers, China General Nuclear Corporation (CGN), which has agreed to buy a 33.5% stake in the project.

Preparation of the site at Hinkley Point in the west of England was stopped last year while EDF sought partners for the project. Each time there has been a postponement the company has issued a statement saying it remains "fully committed" to building the two 1,650 MW reactors.

This week was no different. "We have the intention to proceed rapidly with the investment decision for Hinkley Point", EDF's chief executive Jean-Bernard Levy told reporters. Adding that EDF had not yet finalised talks with its Chinese partners, he said: "Today we estimate this final decision is very close."

Nuclear zombie: Hinkley C's £2 billion sunk cost that EDF can't afford to write off

But Levy went on to say that it would take about three years, possibly a bit more, of study and work with sub-contractors before EDF could begin building the first permanent structures on the Hinkley Point C site, though it will do preparatory work between now and then:

"Definitive construction of what will be built on the site, what we call the first concrete, is on the horizon for 2019."

The idea that there will be a three year delay before any concrete is poured after a positive decision to proceed has caught observers, and contractors lined up to work on the project, by surprise. Earth moving and site preparation has already been under way for several years, plans are at an advanced stage, and heavy engineering works would normally be expected to begin within months.

A final investment decision to go head may, in fact, be no such thing. The company could just be planning to keep a few earth movers trundling about on the site to give the appearance of activity while it seeks a graceful way out.

The date, 2019, is a year after the reactors were originally due to be completed. The timetable has gradually slipped backwards. Last year the date for power to start being generated was put back to 2025, but this new date for pouring concrete makes 2030 more likely - if the reactors are built at all.

One insider with close contacts within EDF told The Ecologist: "The fact is that EDF is already in a precarious financial situation, with its share price half what it was a year ago, a falling credit rating, and massive liabilities for reactor upgrades and decommissioning.

"It has so far sunk £2 billion into Hinkley C and it simply cannot afford to write that sum off even if has already decided that this project is a total loss. So they have to pretend that it's a goer and that the £2 billion is a live investment that will, one day, produce a return to its shareholders."

In other words, a final investment decision to go head may, in fact, be no such thing. The company could just be planning to keep a few earth movers trundling about on the site, for years on end iof needs be, to give the appearance of activity while it seeks a graceful way out of the gigantic hole it has dug for itself.

The most likely long term plan, our source continued, is to try to sell the entire site on to its Chinese partner CGN after a few years. However CGN would then want to use a new reactor design, probably its own 'Hualong' model - which would then create additional long delays as no example has yet been built and it would have to undergo rigorous safety examination.

Record of delays, cost hikes and safety concerns

The new proposed start date of 2019 is significant for reasons the company dare not spell out. This is because there is no evidence yet that these so-called EPR (European Pressurised Reactor, no renamed 'Evolutionary Power Reactor') will operate effectively.

Four EPRs are under construction, but are years behind schedule, and costs have tripled. In Europe their earliest proposed start date is 2018 - so it looks as though EDF is being careful not to begin building another one until it can prove the design actually works.

The EPR, a so called 'third generation' design, is the largest nuclear plant in the world. They have a chequered history, even before any has actually produced a single watt of electricity. Construction of the first prototype began in 2005 at Olkiluoto in Finland: expected to be finished in 2009, it is still under construction.

The same is true of the second, at Flamanville in France, where construction began in 2007. It has also hit delays and cost over-runs of staggering proportions, and technical problems - in the form of a metallurgically flawed pressure reactor and lid - that could sink the project completely.

The vessel and lid contains too much carbon and is undergoing stress testing to see if it is safe. While the outcome of these tests remains unknown, a question mark hangs over the station's future. It too is due to start in  2018 but few believe it will do so.

The other two EPRs are being built at Taishan in China. Both should have been in operation by this year, but both also have undergone unspecified delays that are probably related to the same pressure vessel problems that have afflicted Flamanville.

These difficulties, plus the vast amount of remedial safety work required by the French safety regulators from EDF on its fleet of 58 ageing reactors in France itself, have put the company under severe financial strain. It needs to find €100 billion for repairs, and to improve safety following the Fukushima disaster in Japan, to keep the plants operating until 2030.

As a result of fears that the company might overstretch itself and jeopardise jobs in France the six trade union representatives on EDF's board have expressed opposition to the company going ahead with building reactors on British soil.

UK energy policy in tatters

This further postponement of a start date for the new reactors leaves the UK government with a gaping hole in its energy policy, despite it offering to pay double the existing price of electricity for the output from Hinkley Point, a subsidy that will continue for 35 years.

The Conservative government has been relying on nuclear energy to replace fossil fuels from 2025, when it plans to phase out all its coal stations. Some renewable energy subsidies have been scrapped to make way for new nuclear stations. As a result the UK is due to miss its EU renewable energy targets.

In all, the Conservative government wants ten new nuclear stations in the UK - four EPRs and the rest from Japan and the US. None of these now seems likely to be built before 2030, if at all.

Perhaps to divert attention from the postponement of the new reactors, EDF announced that it was going to extend the life of four of the nuclear power stations it already operates in Britain. It bought eight ageing stations of British design in 2009 for £12.5 billion.

Some were already due to close in 2018 but have had their lives extended. Now another four will be kept open to bridge the gap left by the failure to build the new stations at Hinkley Point. These are the Heysham 1 plant in northwest England and another at Hartlepool in the northeast, both of which had been due to be switched off in 2019 because of their advanced age. They will be allowed to keep producing electricity for another five years.

Two other reactors, Heysham 2 and Torness in Scotland, have been granted extensions of seven years to 2030. There is no reason - as long as the stations are deemed safe - why further life extensions should not be applied for, and granted.

Continuing to apply for life extensions for old nuclear stations also saves the company from technical bankruptcy. Once a station is closed its decommissioning costs become company liabilities. With the company's debts already high, it would not take many closures for EDF's liabilities to exceed its assets.



Paul Brown writes for Climate News Network.

Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.

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