How to guarantee your shiny new nuclear power plant is over budget

September 2012 - EPR reactor construction site - Flamanville, France © EDF, Morin Alexis

September 2012 – EPR reactor construction site – Flamanville, France © EDF, Morin Alexis

First of all, nuclear power is a safe and clean energy source. However, building nuclear power stations is really, really hard and they are often delivered over budget and behind schedule. You’d think, since we’re on the verge of building a new one at Hinkley Point, we’d be doing everything we can to make sure it’s done right. Right? Wrong. To incentivise its construction the government and EDF are doing everything they can to destroy any incentive of building to time and budget.

To understand energy investment in the UK today you need to understand the government’s energy market reform. Trust me I’ll keep it short and use bright colours.

The government doesn’t want to, and legally cannot, willy-nilly subsidise energy investment in the UK. One because they’re Tories and they don’t want any spending on balance sheet because they’ve fetishised the UK’s debt and two because EU state aid rules mean they’re just not allowed to subsidise private energy producers. In the next few years lots and lots of power stations are going to be retired because they’re old and nobody wants to replace them without a subsidy. We are at an impasse that leads to an energy crisis. Can an impasse lead somewhere? Yes. Shut up.

The solution is an elaborate system of contacts, payments, counterparties, bargaining, auctions and horseplay that we know as Electricity Market Reform. The system is really simple. You sign a contract agreeing to produce electricity and the government guarantees you for a set number of years a certain price per Megawatt hour. If the market price is below that contracted price consumers receive a surcharge on their bill, if the market price is above it they get a bonus. How often do you get the bonus? Shut up.

EMR

Eventually the contracts will be auctioned which should mean that payments to consumers occur roughly as much as payments from them. But to begin with the contracts will be negotiated. Because we’re in such a poor state generation wise we’re getting blackmailed by the French.

Taken from here.

Taken from here.

EDF want to build a nuclear power station using a reactor developed by Areva called the EPR. In order to build it is reported that EDF are to receive £93-96 per Megawatt hour. This is more than double the current market price of electricity. To justify the investment EDF claim to need an ex-ante internal return of around 10%. Their problem isn’t that a nuclear power plant is an unproductive investment, they produce a phenomenal amount of electricity. It’s the construction.

Olkiluoto, the first EPR to be built will be 200% over budget and six years late when complete. Flamanville, the second EPR will be about 150% over budget and 4 years late. Linear projects are a fool’s game, but fuck it, at this rate Hinkley Point C will be two years late and double the cost expected. Since the UK is desperate for new, low-carbon generation EDF know they have us over a barrel and a likely cost overrun on their hands. Hence why we’ll be paying them double the market price for electricity.

It doesn’t end there though. If you thought the incentives were bad enough as I’ve describe, it gets worse. To prevent massive windfall profits the government are going to insert a clause into the agreement which will allow for excess profits to be clawed back. Mull that one over.

If EDF build over budget they’ll make a modest profit because they’ve been guaranteed a high energy price.

If EDF build to budget they’ll make a modest profit because government will confiscate the payments consumers pay to EDF because they’ve been guaranteed a high energy price.

As well as being an arsebackwards roundabout way of getting you and me to subsidise the building of power stations it completely eviscerates any financial incentive for EDF to run the project to budget and to schedule. I’ve a soft spot for giant infrastructure projects, complicated engineering and carbon free electricity, but we are running this project like we want it to fail and to cost everyone a lot of money to get there.

Nuclear Power can save us from climate change

I think the left and environmentalists need to embrace nuclear power. There are plans for EDF and British Gas to build four reactors, and it is likely that those would be the first of many; Hitachi, GDF Suez and Iberdrola are all interested in building new nuclear in the UK.

Why new nuclear? Well, I was initially a reluctant supporter, but when it comes to large scale, uninterrupted base load generation it is hard to beat nuclear. Plus, no carbon. Not none really, building things emits carbon, but near enough for it to be properly counted as a renewable fuel.

EDF have just announced they are planning on running their existing UK nuclear fleet for another 34 years (that’s across three plants, Hinkley Point, Hunterston and Sizewell). Increasing their life like this will do enough to reduce carbon emissions equivalent to removing all the cars from UK roads for nearly five years. It is about 340 million tonnes of carbon that won’t be emitted. That is just from running longer our existing plants – that’s a big plus for the planet and for people.

But, there are huge problems with nuclear power in Europe.

First of all, Sellafield, it is a mess. Honestly, it is even worse than you imagine. Look it up, the National Audit Office have a report and Wikipedia have some background. Building 30 sounds pretty fucked up especially. And I’ve heard some odd things about the Seagulls that live there – huge they are. However, we are better at dealing with waste now and things are today built so that it is easy to take them apart safely.

That brings us to building, which is the real problem. No Europeans have built Nuclear Power Plants to budget for years. France and Finland have both fucked up colossally. Like three times above cost and behind schedule. Ludicrously badly. However, despite this, all is not lost. The Japanese and Chinese have built ahead of schedule. They don’t have special Asian-aptitude powers, anybody can do it if the corrupt, incompetent, unproductive Chinese can.

So to the problems of nuclear, I would say that they are in the past or that they can be overcome. The promise of nuclear energy is in predictable energy and tons of it with tons of carbon. I think it is the best bet for decarbonising the economy and I think serious environmentalists need to get behind it.