On Thursday afternoon, I went upstairs, closed the curtains and had a lie down for a while. Something shocking had happened and I needed a few minutes to recover. The traumatic event? I read an article by George Monbiot and largely agreed with it. Truly, a once-in-a-blue-moonbat moment.
It’s not an experience I am accustomed to. Monbiot has for a decade been the most consistent and high-profile proponent of misanthropic environmentalism in the UK. But here we were in agreement: nuclear power is a good idea and we need more of it, but the deal to build Hinkley Point C is a bad one. A really bad one. So bad, in fact, that it could put future governments off the idea of nuclear power for years to come. Yet, after a pause for reconsideration, the UK prime minister, Theresa May, decided last week to give Hinkley Point the green light.
Nuclear power has made a comeback largely because of the obsession with greenhouse-gas emissions. Renewables are still relatively expensive compared with burning fossil fuels (though getting cheaper as technology improves), but they are also intermittent. Solar, obviously, only works during the day and produces less energy when it is cloudy. Wind works both day and night, but only when the wind blows. Renewables are thus both intermittent and unpredictable. As a result, both solar and wind need to be backed up by gas-powered stations – but running such stations on a start-stop basis to fill in the gaps is expensive, too.
Nuclear is comparable with renewables in terms of greenhouse-gas emissions, but it is at least reliable. In fact, since fuel costs are relatively low and capital costs are high, the best thing to do is to run nuclear power stations flat out, providing ‘base load’ to the electricity network. Nuclear isn’t so good at adapting to the ups and downs of electricity demand as gas, but it could still provide a big chunk of Britain’s energy needs.
But building nuclear power stations is an expensive, long-term project – just the kind of thing Britain seems to be bad at. To persuade Électricité de France (EdF) to build Hinkley Point C, the government was forced, to echo a line from Nye Bevan, to stuff their mouths with gold. In the case of Hinkley Point, that meant guaranteeing EdF a high price for the electricity it would produce: £92.50 per megawatt-hour (MWh), index-linked to inflation, plus providing billions in loan guarantees.