Is it too late to consider a Hinkley point redesign?

TE Headshot Jon Jon Excell, editor

Some experts have suggested the spiralling cost of Hinkley Point C could be reduced by re-engineering EDF’s complex and unproven reactor. Is this even practical?

From huge loan guarantees to one of the most generous strike prices in history, the UK government has bent over backwards to try to make Hinkley Point C happen. And yet with every passing week, the plant’s lead backer EDF seems to move further and further away from a final decision on the scheme.

Back in January we reported that the French energy giant was struggling to find the cash for its 66 per cent stake in the project and that its final investment decision had been delayed. Now, fresh doubt has been cast on the plan following the resignation of finance director Thomas Piquemal, who was reportedly concerned that the plant’s £18bn price tag could undermine EDF’s finances. The firm is already under huge financial pressure thanks to delays and spiralling costs of two similar plants in Finland and France.

Of course, one reading of Piquemal’s resignation is that it removes internal opposition to the scheme and clears the way for the board to give it the go ahead.

But if this isn’t the case, the UK will have to quickly answer some fundamental questions about the future of its nuclear fleet, and by extension the future of its energy mix.

One possible option, if the high cost of the plant continues to be a sticking point, may be to look at reducing its complexity and cost.

Talking on the BBC’s Today programme this week (8th March 2016) Malcolm Grimston, a nuclear expert at Imperial College London, argued that the EPR (European Pressurised Reactor) design boasts far more safety features than are necessary for an industry with a better safety record than almost any other form of generation. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster remains the only accident in the history of commercial nuclear power to cause radiation-related fatalities. By reducing the complexity, Grimston claimed, the costs can be brought down.

His comments were echoed by one reader (a commissioning engineer at Sizewell B no less) who, in response to our current online poll remarked: “Stop building new designs!! Just copy Sizewell B design with updated I&C. Repeat x10. Basic engineering all done, simple.”

The problem we have is time. By the middle of next decade much of our existing fossil fuel and nuclear infrastructure will be coming to the end of its life. And the longer the uncertainty over Hinkley Point C rumbles on, the less secure the UK’s energy future looks.