The head of construction at the UK’s first nuclear power plant in three decades has challenged the government to decide whether “it wants nuclear or not” as ministers prepare to publish a new energy policy later this year and uncertainty hangs over China’s continued involvement in the sensitive sector.
EDF, the French developer of Hinkley Point C in Somerset, is racing to meet its target of generating electricity by 2025 as it seeks to bolster the case for a new fleet of nuclear plants that can underpin the UK’s transition to a low carbon energy system.
In recent years, an ambitious plan to build a new generation of reactors across the UK has begun to unravel as two of the world’s leading nuclear engineering groups — Japan’s Toshiba and Hitachi — backed away from their projects.
That left just two schemes — Hinkley and Sizewell — led by EDF with its partner China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN), which is proposing a third plant at Bradwell in Essex.
“The government needs to decide if it wants nuclear or not,” said Stuart Crooks, managing director of Hinkley Point C. “If it doesn’t want nuclear, no amount of financing will make it happen,” referring to an continuing debate about how to finance any future nuclear plant.
The nuclear industry is hoping the government will clarify its position later this year with a long-delayed energy white paper due in the autumn.
Nuclear power accounts for about a fifth of the UK’s electricity generation but the existing fleet of reactors are due to be retired by the mid-2030s and decisions on replacements need to be taken years in advance.
Supporters of nuclear energy say it is essential to meet the UK’s target for net zero carbon emissions by 2050. With the £22.5bn Hinkley project already running two years late and £2.9bn over budget, EDF wants to show it is making progress.
It has finished the base for the station’s second reactor. In the coming months, the world’s largest crane, dubbed ‘Big Carl’, will lift giant prefabricated steel containment structures into place and fill the bases with equipment and piping in critical steps towards building the reactors.
But the coronavirus pandemic has forced EDF to reverse plans to expand its workforce on-site to 6,000, instead at the height of the coronavirus lockdown it fell to 2,000. Worker numbers have since returned to 4,500 split over two shifts but productivity is as much as 20 per cent lower because of social distancing.
On Thursday, EDF warned of a “high” risk of further delays, which could push back first power generation until 2027. Speaking earlier in the week, Mr Crooks said that disruptions caused by the coronavirus at supplier factories, which are running at 50 per cent of output on average, were the biggest risk to the schedule.
The French state-controlled utility, which operates all of the UK’s eight nuclear power stations, faces another serious challenge however.
CGN, its partner in the project, has come under intense scrutiny as relations between London and Beijing deteriorate over Hong Kong and the ban on Chinese telecom giant Huawei from supplying new equipment to the UK 5G network.
The Chinese state-owned company is providing a third of the financing on Hinkley and EDF has repeatedly denied that staff from the Chinese state-backed company pose a threat to UK national security.
Mr Crooks said the roughly 30 CGN employees mainly work in project management and described them as “very professional, helpful nuclear engineers.” CGN and EDF have jointly completed the only working nuclear power plant in the world — in Taishan, China — that uses the same technology as Hinkley.
“It’s not like they put people into the project, they basically asked me as the MD: ‘what help do I need?’,” he explained. “It’s purely based on their desire to protect their investment.”
Nigel Cann, Hinkley’s delivery director, said his team had leaned on CGN’s experience and expertise. “The reach back on lessons learned is really valuable,” he said. “But they don’t lead on anything.”
That confidence is unlikely to be shared by some in the ruling Conservative party who want China out of the UK’s nuclear programme. The UK government is also under growing pressure from Washington, which has become increasingly hostile towards the Chinese government. In 2018 the US warned London it believed CGN was involved in the transfer of civilian nuclear technology for military uses.
Mr Crooks cited safeguards against Chinese interference such as regulation that requires reactors cannot be shut down remotely and the restriction of emails between the project and China.
But there are growing calls from those hawkish Tory MPs to spike CGN’s own plans for a nuclear plant at Bradwell, on the Essex coast, using Chinese reactor technology. That has stoked fears that the state-owned group could withhold further investment in Hinkley in retaliation.
That could derail the project and stymie any future UK nuclear plants as well as harm EDF’s international nuclear ambitions.
“The raison d’être of EDF is to be in nuclear and grow it,” said Lawson Steele, utility analyst at Berenberg. “Hinkley Point is important for that reason.” Walking away is less likely to be terminal to CGN’s nuclear export ambitions, said Josh Buckland, a former government energy adviser who is now a director at consultancy Flint Global.
The nuclear industry has struggled to regain its footing in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in 2011 and the few new-build projects in other developed countries, such as France, have also been hit by extensive delays and spiralling costs.
Advances in renewable energy technology have further put nuclear on the back foot as the price of solar and wind generation falls.
“The nuclear industry is under pressure from a reputational perspective,” said Mr Buckland. “It’s under the microscope at the moment.”
Beyond the diplomatic dispute with China, the building of any further nuclear plants in the UK will need a viable funding mechanism. One option is that consumers would effectively take on the risk by paying in advance through their electricity bills.
The crunch could come with the new energy white paper and prime minister Boris Johnson made encouraging comments earlier this month, when he described nuclear as “a significant potential contributor to our net zero ambitions” although he also backed wind and solar.
For Mr Crooks his goal is to get Hinkley up and running to give a fighting chance for his industry. “I worry about what I can control to be honest and all I can control is building this power station.”