The latest delay with the Hinkley nuclear power station is, for many, the most galling of all

Sarah Richardson

The promise of a new nuclear power station at Hinkley has been a frustratingly moveable feast for eight years; with repeated revisions to funding proposals and start dates since EDF first declared its intention to build a new plant in 2008.

But the latest postponement, announced by the British government this week even as a celebratory lunch of Somerset brie and Cantonese-style pork crackling was being lined up for the parties to the expected deal, is for many the most galling of them all.

After years of cajoling first the French authorities, then the Chinese, to fund one of the most expensive UK infrastructure projects on the block, the fact that it has now been the UK government that has put the project on ice is the twist that no one expected. Certainly not the Chinese delegation, who had made a 13-hour flight to see the deal to build the plant finally sealed.

Of course, a deal to build a power station that will entail the UK government tying itself into a strike price for energy for 35 years is one that needs intense scrutiny: the balance of risk between failing to create fresh energy infrastructure in time to avoid a “lights out” situation, and tying the country into a deal that could cripple consumers in future, is a fine one. Likewise, the decision to rely on Chinese funds to build the project is politically and morally charged, given China’s political juxtaposition to the West and dubious human rights record.

The austerity strategy went hand in hand with the policy of courting foreign investment to fund construction of major schemes such as Hinkley; meaning the UK wouldn’t have to find upfront cash itself

But the point is that the decision to go ahead with both these investments had already been made by the UK government and, at that, one led by the new prime minister’s party. And lest anyone need reminding, the path to that investment strategy was paved by six years of Conservative-led public spending austerity in the UK, which coincided with a period in which the urgent need to upgrade and expand the country’s energy generation capacity was laid plain by think tanks, energy chiefs and politicians alike.  

The austerity strategy went hand in hand with the policy of courting foreign investment to fund construction of major schemes such as Hinkley; meaning the UK wouldn’t have to find upfront cash itself. And in a post-Brexit vote economy, of course, with economic arrangements with the EU shrouded in uncertainty, the reliance on funding from international states such as China for UK development work will only increase. Is now really the time to be rocking this new “special relationship”?

The Hinkley deal, in its current form, may well not be the best possible solution for getting a new nuclear power station built: long-standing nuclear expert Mycle Schneider told Building this week that the project was “too big, too complex and too expensive”. And some would argue that nuclear power itself is not the right solution to the UK’s looming energy crisis.

But against this backdrop, the work of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) – a body created to cut across the chop-change of political cycles and, in George Osborne’s words, “hold any government’s feet to the fire” on delivery of vital long-term infrastructure schemes – is crucial.

The government - whoever heads it – has a duty to ensure projects that will address the UK’s national infrastructure priorities are delivered, and that includes projects that will avert the kind of “black out” crisis that successive experts have warned will follow if the UK does not up its energy production.

With the creation of a new plant at Hinkley already running almost a decade later than originally envisaged, there needs to be an extremely well advanced Plan B if the project is to be halted. If, during the few weeks Theresa May has outlined for a review, that highly unlikely scenario is not forthcoming, the UK government’s case for delivering the power station as planned surely outweighs the case against. And the NIC should be pressing that home.

However it is funded, the scheme needs to be moved forward – particularly given the construction industry which will be needed to deliver it is teetering back on the brink of recession, and firms will not keep project teams poised for long.
The government needs to realise that it cannot have its pork crackling, and eat it.

Sarah Richardson, editor