When EDF’s Hinkley C project director Chris Bakken walked out on the development in February 2016 to pursue “New professional opportunities,” on an entirely different continent, it seemed yet another blow in the tale of woe that is Hinkley C. Since the government proposed the construction a new nuclear power station in 2010, EDF—Hinkley C’s French owned contractors—has been blighted by boardroom bickering, rolling postponements to construction, and some visceral opposition from local residents and politicians alike.
And who can blame them for their misgivings?
Boggly thrice-eyed fish leaping in and out of the nuclear scum. Irradiated killers stalking Somerset’s once-serene lakes. Nu-clear fallout turning high school nerds into morally ambiguous vigilantes. Popular media has painted quite the stock image of nu-clear power. Empirical reality hasn’t always coloured the most comforting pictures either. The haunted town of Chernobyl, empty but for electromagnetism fit to make your meters spike. Three Mile Island. Fukushima. And that’s just when things go wrong. 40,000 people atomised instantly in Nagasaki offers a particularly harrowing ex-ample of nuclear energy projects meeting expectations. Cancer.
And yet, despite the roadblocks and op-position, in their own words: “EDF Energy [still] plans to build the first new nuclear power station in the UK for a generation at Hinkley Point in Somerset.” So what’s the real fallout for the people of Somerset? What’s to comfort Quantock ramblers when they gaze north and see Hickley C, jagged against the windswept shores of the Bristol Chanel, a white castle of unspeakable power?
Green Energy Vs Ominously Luminous-Green Energy
EDF are quick to point out the benefits of nuclear power over burning fossil fuels, and claim that “Nuclear is the only proven low-carbon option for providing the predictable electricity generation the UK needs.” In theory, no harmful pollutants or greenhouse gases are emitted during the nuclear process of generating electricity. Just harmless steam. Indeed, Hinkley C could potentially offer low carbon electricity for decades, avoiding 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions a year—that’s 600million tonnes over its 60 year lifespan. That should keep the greens happy, right?
Amanda Williams, Green Party Senior Regional Liaison Officer to Dorset and Somerset, claims: “We have the ability to provide electricity cleanly, safely and at low-er costs than nuclear. Add to that the opportunity for renewables to be owned not by giant foreign corporations and global finance but by local people in the form of co-operatives and social enterprises, and it’s clear that it is renewable energy [not nuclear] that really offers power to local people.” She points out that major investment in Hinkley C will divert investment and grid capacity from renewable energy, and the potential incorporation of large-scale solar, wind, and hydro energy resources.
Bridgwater resident, and StopHinkley.org campaigner, Roy Pumfrey agrees. “They’re three fears,” he says. “Firstly, that the huge subsidies required for Hinkley, and doubtless further nuclear-projects, will prevent support for energy saving measures and renewable power generation. Secondly, that the particular design for Hinkley is unbuildable and, like all other reactors, will be so long over schedule, and so much over budget, that even if it’s ever completed it’ll be too late to solve the electricity shortfall problem that it was built to address. Thirdly, that the costs of dealing with decommissioning and the risks of storing the radioactive waste are long term issues which politicians are happy to disregard in the short term.”
As both Roy and Amanda point out: a clean process of producing electricity doesn’t necessarily mean “clean energy”. Hinkley C will unarguably leave a hefty footprint on the environment. Nuclear energy’s life-cycle emissions include emissions associated with the construction of the plant, mining and processing the uranium fuel, and routine operation of the plant. Laden buses and HGV’s roaring around the roads of Bridgewater, spitting smog from their pipes.
And there’s the poisonous issue of nu-clear waste disposal. The spent fuel and by-products of the fission process remain deadly-radioactive for hundreds, even thousands, of years (see next section) and require special handling and containment. And where to store this hazardous trash, long-term, is a hot potato issue.
Nuclear waste needs to sit onsite for around 40-50 years before it’s safe to transport and, as such, the vast majority of waste generated so far since the commissioning of the first reactors remains under-water onsite. But eventually, longer—much longer—term solutions are required. There is a general consensus in the nuclear industry that geological storage is the only option, i.e. burying deep underground. How-ever, selection of suitable sites in willing countries is unsurprisingly a problem. Nevertheless, Finland and Sweden are advanced in their plans to bore out underground dumps, and there is potential for an inter-national site either in Australia or Russia. The US government had selected Yucca Mountain in Nevada as being suitable, but funding has now been axed.
Clearly there are legitimate environmental concerns regarding the construction, operation, and decommissioning of Hinkley C, not to mention challenges to the notion of nuclear “green energy.” But some experts feel there’s an even greater risks to the people of Somerset.
Anatomy of disaster?
Half Life Vs Human Life
And nuclear “accidents”, leading to serious consequences for human life and/or the facility, happen more than you probably want to imagine. Nuclear meltdown; decay heat; transport accidents; equipment failure; human error; natural disasters; lost source accidents where hazardous materials are stolen or, incredibly, misplaced. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has recorded over 100 such “nuclear and radiation accidents,” at the direct expense of at least 70 human lives, followed by many indirect deaths due to radiation induced diseases. But the exact figures are often called into question.
“Every reactor failure is a life threatening event,” says Dr Downer. “But there is enormous disagreement as to how threatening. Authoritative studies of Chernobyl’s death toll, for instance, run from 4,000 deaths at the low end, to 1,000,000+ at the high.”
Attributing deaths, disease and birth defects to a nuclear accident, 20 years after the fact, is a tenuous business. Nevertheless, nuclear reactor accidents are the epitome of low- probability but high-consequence events, and have the potential to affect large areas and populations. But just how worried should those downwind of Hinkley C be? Should the people of the South-West, in-deed the entire UK, be prepping for killer cloud of nuclear chaff? Should schools be teaching respirator drills?
“Of course there are serious hazards associated with the generation of nuclear power, but the risks are very low,” insists Dr David Richards, expert in nuclear hazards and risk at the Bristol-Oxford Nuclear Research Centre. “Some would have it that there are risks associated with low levels of radiation. I.e. large proportions of the population being exposed to a minimal radiation increase. But I have been convinced by researchers that the dangers are exaggerated.”
Accusations of exaggerating risk is a running theme in the nuclear debate. A 2007 French report suggested a possible excess risk of childhood leukemia in the close vicinity of nuclear power plants. The study’s methods and conclusions have been the subject of searing debate ever since, with several subsequent reports providing evidence that the hypothetical risk increase was down to a simple statistical fluctuation.
Whatever the vagaries and risks, Dr Richards disagrees with the Green crowd, and StopHinkley.org. “Benefits will out-weigh the costs,” he says, “unless there is a dramatic shift in the way we approach renewables.”
Death by Context
Let’s face it: harm by nuclear—on the grim, morbid scale—is a pretty interesting way to go down. Like being sucked out of an aeroplane, smacked by a meteorite, or shredded by a tiger. We humans tend to focus on Hollywood endings, dramatic injury, despite the fact that we’re several orders of magnitude more likely to fall foul of a grey hatchback on a B road, or succumb to daftness and old age. But banality just isn’t as frightening as an ISIS suicide bomber, although it’s likely banality that’ll get you in the end.
So just how dangerous in nuclear energy, in context? For every 1 person killed by nuclear power generation, 4,000 people die due to coal energy production. That’s not taking into account the 1 million people that the World Health Organisation say die every year as a result of air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels. And how many more will die as a direct result of climate change?
But renewables have the power to save us, without recourse to hazardous nuclear, right? Well that depends. Those who advocate widespread PV solar power, incorporating millions of roofs, need to consider roof worker safety. In the USA alone, more than 1,000 construction workers are killed on the job every year—330 of those from working at heights. Falls are the leading cause of fatalities in the construction industry here in the UK too. Meanwhile, fatal injuries as a result of nuclear power generation are close to averaging zero per year, globally.
So, for the people of Somerset, the question of Hinkley C comes down to—as with many things—a question of risk versus reward. How low must the risk be to achieve the benefits of cheap, reliable, and relatively clean energy, not to mention thousands of new jobs for the region?