The UK’s Hinkley Point nuclear power station has major backing from China. But why does the government need their help?
It will be the first nuclear plant in the UK for 20 years. Hinkley Point C in Somerset is expected to provide up to 7% of the UK’s electricity needs and create thousands of jobs.
The project by French energy company EDF is going to be partly backed by China through a £2bn deal that the government has said it will guarantee.
Chancellor George Osborne has said that will allow “unprecedented co-operation” on the construction of more nuclear plants. There are already reports that a Chinese-designed nuclear reactor could be built in Essex.
But the UK used to be a leader in the nuclear energy industry. It opened the world’s first civil nuclear reactor in the 1950s. So why does a country with so much experience now need help from abroad?
“Nuclear power plants are astonishingly expensive,” says Stephen Thomas, energy policy expert and a retired professor from the University of Greenwich Business School.
Constructing a large nuclear reactor takes thousands of workers and needs a huge number of components and materials. The site needs to be prepared beforehand and a whole host of systems put in place from cooling to back-up safety mechanisms.
The cost of construction alone at Hinkley Point is estimated at a massive £24bn. Few private companies are able to afford that kind of money.
It’s also difficult to put a price tag on projects because of the uncertainties in how long construction will take, explains David Toke, energy politics reader at the University of Aberdeen. “You don’t really know what the costs are going to be before you start building,” he says.
There are also technology risks. “Most of the time it doesn’t get built on time, it doesn’t get built to cost and it doesn’t always work as well as it should do,” explains Thomas.
Hinkley in particular is going to use a reactor design that has raised a few eyebrows among its critics. It will use European Pressurised Reactors (EPR). “The two [plants] of this design that are being built in Europe are badly behind schedule and over budget,” says Richard Green, professor of sustainable energy business at Imperial College London.
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