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Britain’s nuclear white elephant preventing clean energy development, and energy efficiency


The nuclear white elephant that stands in the way of green growth   By Jeremy Leggett  , June 06 2016  EDF’s Hinkley Point C plant in western England will have much to do with the nuclear industry’s prospects globally — and hence for the ability of renewables to grow quickly.

I start with a set of numbers surely destined to become a classic case history for business schools.

Imagine you are the chief financial officer of a company with a market capitalisation of €18bn ($20.3bn). You are being asked to find investment of €22bn to build a nuclear plant, the first of a whole new fleet.

Without that fleet, your company cannot hope to grow, assuming it sticks with nuclear generation, and therefore without that one plant its business model will be exposed as broken.

Yet your plant is the most expensive power station in the world — one of the most expensive human construction projects ever, in real terms. And here is the thing: you carry €37bn of net debt on your balance sheet.

You have two further problems. The first is €55bn in estimated liabilities to keep a fleet of ageing reactors open beyond their long-scheduled close-down dates. The second is an unknown number of billions to fix a grave safety flaw in the steel of a pressure vessel in the forerunner of the new plant you must build.

What do you do? You resign, of course.

Which is exactly what EDF chief financial officer Thomas Piquemal did on 8 March.

Now imagine you are the abandoned chief executive, Jean-Bernard Lévy.

You face a few problems beyond the loss of your financial chief, the market signal that sends and the reasons for his departure. Moody’s has warned that your credit rating will be downgraded if you proceed with the plant, making it far more difficult for you to raise yet more debt.

Your labour unions are begging you not go ahead, and threatening to strike if you do. They are saying that they fear this single project will bankrupt the company. Worse, they have seats on the board, because the workforce are part-owners of the company.

What do you do? In a rational world, you resign too.

But now imagine you have a rock-solid belief system. You cannot conceive of a world without nuclear power, or at least your vital power plant. So instead of resigning, you announce your renewed determination to build the project.

You confer with your bosses in the French government, which owns the majority of the company. They in turn confer with your client, the British government, and your minority co-investors, the Chinese government. All are populated with people who share your belief system, so they too restate their commitment that this project will go ahead.

The British say they absolutely need the 7% of national electricity that the project would provide by 2025, the scheduled start date. That is why they have agreed an unprecedented deal with you that will pay £92.50 ($133) per MWh — more than twice the current retail price of electricity, guaranteed for 35 years, and linked to inflation, in so doing loading many billions onto future household and business energy bills.

British officials are meanwhile actively suppressing renewables and energy efficiency. Cynics suspect they are doing so in part to ensure a market for the electricity your nuclear plant will provide, when you finish it — as you say you can.

Yet still your catalogue of problems grows.

French authorities open an investigation into the faking of records at a factory making vital parts for your power station. They have identified anomalies in documents related to 400 components made for existing nuclear facilities running today.

At the UN, a committee rules that the UK government is in breach of international obligations in failing to consult neighbouring countries over the potential environmental impacts of your intended plant.

Then you realise you have left contingency out of the budget. You are forced to add a further €3bn+ to the already record-breaking bill.

The day after that, Moody’s carries out its threat to downgrade your credit rating. Standard and Poor’s goes further, cutting a significant part of your debt to junk status.

And so it goes on.

As for the denouement, the only thing yet to be resolved is the exact shape of the inevitable tragedy. Including the extent to which this white-elephant product of a broken and dying belief system can slow the growth of renewables.

Jeremy Leggett is founding director of international PV company Solarcentury. See for a free download of The Winning of The Carbon War, his account of the dramas in energy and climate from 2013 to the Paris summit. Also available for order as a printed book, with all proceeds going to SolarAid.

July 4, 2016 - Posted by | general

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