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Why nuclear energy is not the answer to our energy crisis

Since the publication of the UK’s so called energy strategy back in April 2022 there have been major developments in the nuclear sector, on which this Westminster government’s whole energy plan rests.

It’s not going well.

Sizewell C

The UK Government has just last week overturned planning advice and approved construction of the Sizewell C nuclear plant in Suffolk. The above picture shows the current site preparation and investigation work being undertaken there, together with the Sizewell B reactor in the background.

The Government’s independent Planning Inspectorate advised against approving the project, citing concerns about water supplies for the plant and its impact on local habitats (particularly the nature reserve at Minsmere, famous for its Spring/Autumn/Winterwatch programmes).

The business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has concluded “that the very substantial and urgent need for the proposal outweighs the harms”, referring to the Government’s pledge to increase nuclear output to 25% of electricity supplies by 2050 as it seeks to transition towards low-carbon energy to meet its net zero climate targets. All of the statements in this sentence are incorrect.

The power company charged with driving Britain's nuclear revolution is EDF (Electricite de France). It has been forced to overhaul the design of its flagship new ‘EPR’ reactor to avoid a repeat of damage to fuel rods that forced the Taishin unit in China to shut down. This happened a year ago, less than 3 years after it started operation. EDF plans to prevent malfunctions in future by changing the way the rods are held in place. It is also exploring potential changes involving coolant waters to lessen the problem. Both Hinkley Point C, in Somerset and Sizewell C, in Suffolk, are designed according to EDF’s new EPR technology.

So, a nuclear reactor under construction is having to be re-designed in the middle of being built due to design flaws. And another one has been given the go ahead despite these design safety question marks.

In response to the government granting development consent for Sizewell C, Greenpeace UK’s chief scientist, Dr Doug Parr, said: “The contrast between dynamic, cost cutting and innovative technologies in the renewables sector and the limping behemoths of new nuclear power could barely be more striking. Sizewell C represents all that’s been wrong about energy policy. A nuclear company, saddled with problems - from failing reactors to having to be nationalised - is getting a stitched up deal behind closed doors leading to extra costs on energy bills, unmanageable waste for future generations and an expensive white elephant project. That it’s trashing an important nature reserve is an unwanted bonus. Rather than wasting time and money on this red herring energy solution, the government should throw everything at making cheaper, cleaner and more reliable renewables the backbone of our energy system. Whatever else is going on in UK politics at the moment, there’s no sign of a fresh start here.”

Hinkley Point

Hinkley Point B finally closed on Monday 1st August 2022.

EDF have implicitly admitted that the construction of Hinkley C may take at least 11 years to finish and have signalled cost overruns of 70 per cent or more. Bloomberg reports that EDF is requesting that the Government give EDF another 15 months to complete the plant and be fully generating beyond 2029. Under the terms of EDF’s contract with the UK Government, if Hinkley C fails to generate power by 2029 it will start losing the amount of subsidy it can claim. Adding 15 months to this as requested (under a ‘force majeure’ clause) will take us into 2030.

EDF has therefore asked the government-owned Low Carbon Contracts Company (LCCC) to trigger the Force Majeure clause on its Hinkley Point C contract to avoid penalties as a result of delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. In May the French utility warned the costs of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant currently under construction in England could soar by an extra £3 billion. In a statement, the LCCC said: “The LCCC recognises that Covid-19 has impacted projects and is capable of being a Force Majeure event under the contract for difference.” Triggering the Force Majeure clause is expected to enable the company to avoid losing guaranteed payments.

Since however the contract specifies that EDF will not be liable for generation costs over £92.50 per MWhr for the first 35 years, any cost overrun is going to be funded by the taxpayer. So yes, those energy bills are likely to rise even further. How the current energy crisis will affect the situation is anyone’s guess. It is clear however that the cost per MWhr for electricity generated by wind renewables is already less than half the contract price negotiated for Hinkley C and will fall further.

EDF – a failing company

Despite the future looking secure for EDF when they do start generating electricity given the price guarantees, EDF has just made an historic loss of 5.3 billion euros (announced 28/7/2022). EDF’s financial situation is so precarious that the French state is currently negotiating to buy back all the shares it sold off to investors in 2005.

As well as the problems in China there are design outages across its fleet in France due to steel corrosion. The impact of Covid and the heatwave across Europe together with these operating problems has led to EDF’s nuclear fleet operating about 27% below last year’s levels.

Ironically enough, Britain’s power system has been riding to the rescue of mainland Europe in recent months, becoming a net exporter of electricity for the first time since 2017 to make up for these record shutdowns of the French nuclear reactors.

This is the company that our UK Government is relying on meet their pledge to increase nuclear output to 25% of supplies by 2050.

Meanwhile, the much less newsworthy energy efficiency sector is starved of investment to properly insulate our homes. Which if it happened would be a much better way of insulating us all from fuel bill increases.

- Sheila Durie

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