The term “White Elephant” is often used to refer to a project that is drawing in far more money and political capital than its worth. Yet such a project is often difficult if not impossible to simply cancel, usually because there’s so much riding on it, or the cost of cancellation would exceed the cost of completing it. It refers to the practice in Asia in which vast amounts of money would be spend buying and maintaining a white elephant, that in of itself, has no real value.
It is therefore quite an appropriate term used to describe the government’s troubled Hinkley C project. As the Guardian’s Damian Caraington points out, you can tell how badly things are likely to go by the long list of enemies the project is gathering. And this is before they’ve even started building it!
While inevitably, the Green groups are against it, but there are a lot of opponents who are anything but fluffy tree huggers. Energy analyst Peter Atherton for example describes it as “one of the worst ever deals signed by a British government”. A view shared by HSBC analysts, their colleagues at Citigroup and the Financial Times. Even fellow big six boss Paul Massara of Npower seems to see Hinkley C as a bit of a shit sandwich, which he has no intention of biting into.
All point out that there are far cheaper ways of providing low carbon energy and that the price of Hinkley C has already crept up from £17 billion to nearly £25 billion and the date of completion has slipped further. This trend of spiralling costs and a pushing back of dates mirrors other recent nuclear energy projects. Olkiluoto in Finland is now likely to be 13 years late and 4 times more expensive than its original estimate. And the lawsuits are likely to be flying for much longer after that. Flamanville in Normandy is facing similar delays and a three fold increase in costs.
Indeed, one of the other issues is the fact that, perhaps somewhat ironically, the UK is having to increase its pump storage capacity to cope with a sudden power loss from a future Hinkley C. Of course, supporters of Hinkley C will often try to claim that wind energy isn’t a viable alternative “because wind is intermittent” (nuclear has its own issues in this regard of course) and that storing it all is somehow impossible (really?), which merely serves to demonstrate how naive and ill-informed they are about how electricity grids function (i.e. the difference between available power (Watts) and stored energy (kWh’s), the grid’s reserve power availability has to be sized according to the largest domino, which will be Hinkley C).
Enter the Three Stooges
Indeed speaking of tree huggers, three pro-nuclear, green turncoats, Paul Goodall, Mark Lynas and George Monbiot have now published an open letter reversing their prior support for Hinkley C and calling for it to be scrapped. No doubt alarmed at the recent cuts to UK renewable subsidies, and perhaps it dawning on them that such cuts were inevitable (as I’ve long feared) in order to make sure renewables are not in a position to compete against Hinkley C.
They also point to the fact that this slipping of the schedule pushes the date at which the plant can start up is now past the crucial threshold of 2023 – the date at which all but one of the UK’s existing nuclear plant’s will have had to shut for safety reasons. As I’ve long pointed out, once we slip past that date either lots and lots of renewables will be needed to fill the resulting energy gap, or (given recent subsidy cuts) more likely all efforts to curb carbon emissions will be abandoned with a mad dash for gas and coal. Already, one could argue much of the renewable capacity added worldwide has not been replacing fossil fuels, but replacing ageing nuclear capacity instead.
While our three stooges mumble something about still being pro-nuclear and propose modular nuclear reactors as an alternative, this merely demonstrates their lack of knowledge regarding nuclear energy (its kind of the equivalent of them saying Amen or Hallelujah!). As I have pointed out on this blog, modular nuclear reactors would in all probability be more expensive per kWh than large single reactors like Hinkley C (haven’t they ever heard of economies of scale? I mean if small reactors are cheaper, don’t you think we’d be building them?). This is a view shared by the NNL (the UK’s National Nuclear Laboratories).
The fact is, there are good reasons why the nuclear industry is pushing for large LWR’s – its the only viable option they have that’s currently even vaguely market ready. Alternative’s to the LWR paradigm do hold certain advantages, notably in the matter of safety and reduced nuclear waste. But all the evidence points to them being more expensive again, both to build and decommission and crucially these alternatives will likely have even slower build rates.
Put rather bluntly, Hinkley C is shaping up to be the hill on which the UK nuclear industry may well chose to die on. The trouble is, they may take down the whole of the UK energy industry with them…..anyone got an elephant rifle handy?…..