Clive Bull: A top EDF boss has resigned over the company’s plans to build Britain’s first new nuclear power plant for decades. There is an ongoing row over the 18 billion pound cost, part of which China is paying for. The government wants to increase nuclear power, and phase out the use of fossil fuels, to help with climate change. Should Britain be reliant on a foreign owned nuclear power plant? And is nuclear power the best choice for the environment, for the country, to keep us supplied with energy? It’s the chief financial officer who quit EDF over the Hinkley Point C plant in Somerset…Britain is increasingly going to rely on nuclear power, that’s the plan, the policy at the moment of the government. Is that something that we are comfortable with? We are doing it in the name of the environment. It’s interesting that Germany is doing the opposite, after the Japanese nuclear accident, they pledged to close their nuclear plants, they are not building anymore and they are gradually closing them down, and in about 10 years time they will have none, no nuclear power at all. So what should our energy policy be? What about wind turbines? What about solar panels? Do you trust nuclear power?…Let’s get a view from Tom Burke environmentalist and former government advisor on the environment. Good evening Tom. This resignation first of all, does this mean that the Hinkley plant will still go ahead?
Tom Burke: I think that it’s a very serious blow to its prospects of going ahead. My sense of it is that if your finance director says “this is a very bad deal”, which he clearly has done, then to go ahead with it is folly.
Clive Bull: And what’s your view of this? Do you think that it is folly to go ahead with it?
Tom Burke: I’m afraid I do. It has always been a very bad deal. Lots of people have been saying so now for quite some time. It’s very bad for the country, not very good for the climate and not very good for our energy security. Even the Chancellor’s father in law said so, again recently, that he thought it was a bad deal. You’ve had a former Cabinet Secretary saying he thought that it was a bad deal. So there is an awful lot of opinion from all quarters building up saying “look, something that charges you more than twice the current price of electricity, and you guarantee now to pay that for 35 years, is probably not the best thing in the world.
Clive Bull: China have an interest in it, and EDF as well, and part of the deal is that in return we are promising to pay a big bonus when we buy the electricity back.
Tom Burke: Well, we are essentially promising to buy all of the electricity that it produces for 35 years. What’s really strange is how a government that has any interest in markets can think that there is any sense in trying to buy something 35 years in advance. I think that’s why so many people are beginning to doubt that this project will actually go ahead. Eventually anything that is a bad deal falls over, at some point. I think this is a sign that the cracks are really appearing in this project…What you are now seeing is that the French EDF can’t themselves come up with their share of the 18 billion pounds that this is supposed to cost, and it’s because in order to do that they have got to sell other assets so that they can finance their bit of it, that isn’t being paid for by the Chinese, that I think that the finance director has resigned, because what he is clearly saying, and what the French Unions clearly believe is that there are better thing for EDF, which is in a lot of trouble financially, to be doing with that money, than paying for a bit of a white elephant of a nuclear project in Britain.
Clive Bull: The policy at the moment is for the current government to push forward with nuclear power, they say that is the answer to our energy needs, and that it’s greener.
Tom Burke: Yeah, they say both of those things. It’s certainly low-carbon, but if you’re going to be dealing with climate change you need things that you can have now, right away, not something that you’ve got to wait 10 years for it to be built. And frankly, we could do much better now paying for renewables, paying for much more energy efficiency which would get bills down really fast. All of that would give us greener, and cheaper, and more reliable energy supply than this very speculative project which is going to cost a fortune.
Clive Bull: But we need more and more power, it seems that our energy needs are ever growing. Can we really answer those needs with things like wind turbines and solar panels?
Tom Burke: Well, the first thing is that our energy needs actually aren’t continuing to grow. Our electricity demand in this country has been falling for most of the last 10 years. Gas demand all over Europe, not just in this country is falling.
Clive Bull: Is that because we are being more careful?
Tom Burke: Partly because we are being more careful, and partly because people’s ages have stagnated, so their energy cost are a higher part of their expenditure, so they are cutting back, and partly because renewables are kicking in. So we are more efficient across the board, and we’re just smarter, really, I think that’s the thing, so we are not using as much. But it’s also because we have changed the nature of our economy, we are much more a service driven economy, which isn’t very energy intensive. So all of those things are adding up to meaning that the old models, which had us on a continually expanding demand for energy are simply turning out to be wrong.
Clive Bull: So what of these renewable sources like wind farms and solar panels, can they ever be on a big enough scale to be meaningful?
Tom Burke: Well actually, renewables last year provided more of the electricity we used in Britain than nuclear. So the answer to your question is yes, and that’s not a guess, that is actually what is happening now. Can they go on to replace coal and gas? That depends on whether we make the right kind of energy policy decisions over the next few years. Right now we are beginning to head off in the wrong direction I think.
Clive Bull: How do you feel about the safety of nuclear power, we are being reminded of Fukushima at the moment, of the waste land after that accident. And we know that Germany has abandoned, or wants to abandon nuclear power completely.
Tom Burke: And so have other countries, Italy for instance, and Sweden has gone back to saying that it will phase out its reactors. I don’t worry about the safety of reactors when they are being operated in Europe, or the United States. I think that there is a good track record of the industry doing what it has to do, which is to come up with a fault free management of its reactor fleet. So I don’t have a worry that we are going to have accidents in this country. I don’t think that is the main reason that we shouldn’t be focusing on nuclear power. I do worry about what is happening in other parts of the world, where the safety culture isn’t as strong as it is here. And so there would be some real dangers if the rest of the world went ahead and built lots of nuclear power stations. Not the least because as we saw with Fukushima, if you have a big accident in a nuclear power station anywhere, it has repercussions politically everywhere.
Clive Bull: When I was younger there was a lot of talk about nuclear power, and a lot of anti-nuclear protestors, a lot of that seems to have gone away now. And the big message I remember as a teenager is that it produces waste that will never go away, it lasts for hundreds of thousands of years. Is that actually still the case? Has the technology changed?
Tom Burke: I was one of those campaigners, all that time ago, and those problems are still there. We haven’t really solved the problem of nuclear waste and those wastes live for an awfully long time. We are talking about tens of thousands of years, far longer than human history. So I think that there remains a problem to be solved, but it’s not the most pressing issue. If we don’t go ahead with nuclear power, at least we have stopped the problem getting bigger, and I think that is a good thing to achieve. I think that the other problem is that you can have nuclear power without making it possible to have nuclear weapons. So again, pretty dangerous if you think that the world is going to go nuclear, you would be giving an awful lot of countries the capability of going nuclear, and I don’t think that would be very good for our safety and security.
Clive Bull: So if the Hinkley latest plan flops, you won’t be sorry?
Tom Burke: I won’t be sorry at all and I think that is the Hinkley plan flops, then that is going to be the end of nuclear power in this country. Which I think will be a good thing.
Clive Bull: Tom thank you very much, Tom Burke former government advisor on the environment.