Nuclear Power? Yes please. Hinkley Point C? No thanks.

Dr Simon Sneddon, Senior Lecturer in Law writes:

More years ago that I care to remember (well, six actually) I submitted my PhD thesis which looked at the rationale behind political decision making in relation to nuclear power in the UK between 1945 and 2005.[1]


The decision made by Prime Minister Theresa May on Friday to rethink the £18bn project has brought these discussions back to the surface. The overall premise of my research was that governmental decisions in this arena are rarely made for sound scientific reasons, but for politically pragmatic ones. The decisions are retrospectively dressed up in the garb of science. This did not quite fit with Professor Kantrowitz’s theory from the 1970s that there existed a technocratic decision-making (TDM) elite, in a sort of cabal of politically-powerful scientists and scientifically-knowledgeable politicians.[2]

Professor Jasanoff took the TDM idea further and suggested in the 1990s that we were moving to a post-TDM world where

“dependence on scientific experts, whose judgments are necessarily influenced by their moral beliefs and social aspirations, may well replace rule by a technocratic élite for democratic process.”[3]

What my work showed was that while this may be true for many areas of political decision making, it did not hold for decisions relating to nuclear power in the UK, particularly from the 1970s onwards. In these cases, there were essentially two elite groups — scientific experts and political decision makers, and while politicians used science to justify decisions, they rarely made decisions based on the science.

The Hinkley C project is a case in point. The project, which would have been essentially financed and owned by the French and Chinese Governments (through their respective stakes in EDF Energy and CGN), would have created a single EPR nuclear power station capable of generating 7 per cent of Britain’s energy needs.

The EPR design is a new (third) generation of Pressurised Water Reactors, the second generation of which are being used widely across the world. With two 1600MWe reactors planned, Hinkley Point C would have been almost twice the size of the Finnish Olkiluoto 3 plant (currently scheduled for completion in 2018, nine years later than intended) and the French Flamanville 3 plant (also scheduled for completion in 2018, but “only” seven years late). The other two EPR reactors are being built in China, and Taishan 1 & 2 are both scheduled to start producing power in 2017, a mere three years after the planned start date.

What this tells us is that multi-billion pound construction projects involving thousands of contractors and components will almost inevitably over-run. I, for one, would prefer nuclear power stations to be built properly and slowly, rather than poorly and quickly.

Was the PM’s decision based on the advice of scientific community? We don’t know, but probably not — and in any event, as Professor Nowotny pointed out in 1980:

“The fictitious ‘scientific community’ has long since given way to numerous communities, pluralistic in their status claims and codes of professional conduct as well as in their competence.”[4]

Yesterday, Vince Cable told the Guardian newspaper that:

“…when we were in government, Theresa May was, I think, quite clear that she was unhappy about the rather gung-ho approach to Chinese investment that we had, and that George Osborne in particular was promoting and, as I recall, raised objections to Hinkley at that time.”[5]

Mrs May’s actions were partly triggered by concerns about Energy Security.[6] This has been a recurring theme in governments since at least the time of Tony Blair (and was one of the reasons Blair said that “Energy supply is under threat” is a speech to the CBI in 2005), and is predicated on the fear that the UK’s energy will be controlled by other governments, who might use that power either for financial leverage or to exert pressure in other policy areas, or both.

I am an environmentalist in outlook, but I have nothing against nuclear power. Wikipedia has just told me that this makes me a “nuclear green.” If that is what I am, then I am in good company, as Professor James Lovelock, Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore, Guardian columnist George Monbiot, and retired NASA scientist James Hansen.[7] I cannot speak for them, but for me the arguments against nuclear power (which does undeniably pose risks that are large but unlikely to occur) pale into insignificance when contrasted with the argument that nuclear power will fill the gap between electricity demand and supply more reliable than wind, solar or tidal energy, and, more cleanly than fossil fuels.

Nuclear Power Yes Please

However, massive projects like Hinkley Point C are a mistake. To put so much reliance on one plant, which will take so long to build (and earlier this year, EDF said that construction would not even begin until 2019) is foolhardy. To them put the ownership of such a plant into the hands of other governments, is simply reckless.

At the tail end of last year, and not garnering widespread media attention, was an announcement by the Snowdonia Enterprise Zone Advisory Board that, following an IMechE report from September 2014, the Trawsfynydd site, which is currently having its Magnox reactors decommissioned), the potential of the site as “a future base for the development of small modular reactors (SMRs)”[8] was being explored. SMRs are defined by the International atomic Energy Authority as being 300Mw or less (so about one fifth the size of the potential EPR at Hinkley Point C), and they are modular — in other words, they are built centrally and shipped to site, rather than being built from scratch on site. This makes them cheaper to build. According to the Sunday Telegraph in April this year, there are eight sites across the UK which are being considered for these.[9]

To me, this makes much more sense. The predictable outcry came from the predictable areas, but to put it simply, we need more power. Soon.

According to the now-defunct Department of Energy and Climate Change, nuclear power generated 20.8 per cent of UK electricity in 2015. Fossil fuels still generated well over 50 per cent of our electricity, with all of the accompanying CO2 emissions — and three quarters of the gas we burn is imported.

UK Energy Statistics 2014 & Q4 2015

The WNA predicts half of the UK’s nuclear generating capacity (so 10 per cent of the total capacity) will be closed by 2025. Wind turbines are fine, and generated 12 per cent of the UK’s electricity, but we would need to double the number of wind turbines over the next nine years just to plug the gap left by closing nuclear power stations, let alone replacing coal, oil and gas.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said “don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment” but Hinkley Point C was an expensive, untested, ill-thought-out experiment, and I salute the Prime Minister for her common sense in taking stock. I would urge her to scrap the whole thing, and instead to use the vast lake of money to install a fleet of SMRs across the country.

[1] If you really wanted to, Amazon have the version that was published by Lambert Academic Publishing for sale here — a snip at only £74.

[2] Kantrowitz, A. 1975, Controlling technology democratically, American Scientist 63:505–509:506

[3] Jasanoff, S., 1994, The Fifth Branch: Science Advisers as Policymaker, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

[4] Nowotny, H., 1980, The Role of the Experts in Developing Public Policy: The Austrian Debate on Nuclear Power, Science, Technology & Human Values, 5 (2) 14.

[6] And quite possibly partly by what one BBC reporter called “political revenge” on former Chancellor George Osborne, but that is unproven.

[7] Hansen’s testimony before the US Congress in 1988 was said to have been instrumental in increasing the awareness of the American public of Climate Change. Weart, S.R., 2008, The Discovery of Global Warming, Harvard: Harvard University Press

Originally published at on August 1, 2016.