The Spectator, 19 December 2020
I love Suffolk. This Christmas I will be there with my family and we’ll almost certainly walk up the coast, joining dog-walkers, bird-watchers, hikers and even swimmers in one of the most beautiful and unspoiled parts of the UK. The secret of Suffolk is its relative inaccessibility. No major motorway connects it and once you arrive you’re committed to a sprawling network of country lanes that twist through heathland and grazing marsh, mudflats and reedbeds. Minsmere, a nature reserve that’s home to 6,000 wildlife species, is among its glories. The nightjar, the woodlark, the Dartford warbler and the silver-studded butterfly are just some of the rare species found there.
At least for the time being.
Not just the heritage coast, but quite possibly the entire county, could be changed for ever by the arrival of two new European pressurised reactors (EPRs). ‘Sizewell C, a proposed new nuclear power station in Suffolk, has the potential to generate the reliable low carbon electricity the country needs for decades to come’ is the claim made by EDF Energy, the French-owned company behind the project. It also has the potential to be a disastrous and expensive mistake. Many believe it already is.
First there’s the site, which, if this were an episode of Yes Minister, might have been chosen for its comedy potential. Next to a world-famous bird sanctuary? In an area well-known for serious coastal erosion? As the avocets and warblers take flight, the entire thing could be reclaimed by a vengeful sea. The site is too small. It’s poorly connected. (EDF put forward the idea of an 800m jetty to allow access by water. The idea sank.) Imagine 1,000 HGVs arriving every day, 10,000 cars, hundreds of buses. Actually, if you know the area, you can’t.
As for EDF, perhaps you should judge a company by the company it keeps. EDF is in bed with CGN or China General Nuclear — blacklisted by the US government after the FBI and Department of Justice uncovered a nasty propensity for stealing American technology for its own use.
EDF may have lots of things going for it, but money isn’t one of them. Already stretched to the limit by its 66 per cent stake in Hinkley Point (with a budget that has risen from £16 billion to at least £ 21.5 billion, making it the most expensive power station in the world), it needs £20 billion and hopes the UK government will come up with most of that through either a large stakeholding or a tax added to energy bills known as Regulated Asset Base.
To be fair, EPR nuclear reactors are notoriously difficult and expensive to construct. Look at Olkiluoto Island to the west of Finland, which went wrong almost at once when the slab base was incorrectly laid, a design fault which could have caused the entire thing to collapse if anyone sneezed. The project has been swamped by lawsuits. Or Flamanville in France, where costs have risen from €3.3 billion to €12.4billion and the EPR is already eight years late. The French energy minister has described it as a ‘mess’.
Here are two simple truths.
Right now the main beneficiary of the nuclear industry is… the nuclear industry. No western European country has commissioned new builds apart from the fiascos in Finland and France. Why is EDF even suggesting an EPR when there are other options that could be considered? There are the small modular reactors, for example, proposed by Rolls-Royce and put together in factories off-site, each one producing 440 megawatts of electricity, enough to power a small city. But that’s not what EDF does. It’ll stick with what it knows, even if what it knows is cumbersome and expensive.
And slow. Sizewell C needs planning consent and operating licences that won’t be in place before 2022. It will take 12 years to construct. The earliest it could power even a single Christmas tree light is 2034, and it will need another six years to offset the CO2 created by its construction. Net zero is of course the ultimate goal. But there are other ways to achieve this. Suffolk has offshore wind farms with more planned. Hydropower, geothermal energy, hydrogen cell technology — there’s every chance that by the time Sizewell C opens it will already be outdated.
But will it actually go ahead? Nobody knows. The Prime Minister has approved the start of negotiations with EDF and he does like his ‘big’ projects, but in this case that’s exactly the problem. As Alison Downes, a human rights campaigner now leading the Stop Sizewell C protest group, told me: ‘We have no ideological opposition to nuclear power. It’s the sheer scale and intensity of what’s required to build these huge reactors — the workforce and the materials and all the rest of it — that have angered local people.’ A petition against the project has been signed by 19,000 of them.
They may well know what to expect. Look at Leiston, just a few miles away, which bought into the myth of Sizewell B. Huge social problems involving pop-up brothels and drug dealing arose during its construction (1987-95) and what has been left behind is hardly glorious. The town looks tired and a little sad. Anthony Douglas CBE, chair of the Suffolk Safeguarding Partnership which protects children and adults at risk in the county, describes ‘a significantly deprived population… with little social mobility’. This is the legacy of Sizewell B, and he worries that years of disruption during the new construction will further impact the health and wellbeing of local people.
Call me a Nimby if you must. How cleverly Donated (the Department Of Nasty Acronyms To Eliminate Debate) attacks our quality of life with easy insults. Not in my backyard — yes, but how else are we to protect the world if we don’t look out for our backyards, for our neighbours, for each other? By the time Sizewell C is actually producing electricity I could well be dead, so in fact it’s your and my children’s backyards that concern me.
And on that cheery note, COTS! Work it out.