Andy Blowers asks if the hectic activity over the Bradwell nuclear project represents the dénouement or merely another stage in a long journey towards an unpredictable end game.
Since the beginning of this year, during the coronavirus emergency, the conflict over a new nuclear power station at Bradwell has come to a head. This is not the first culmination experienced.
The came late in 2007 when Bradwell was identified as a ‘possible site’ – and led to the formation of BANNG. Then came the site selection process with Bradwell listed as a ‘potentially suitable’ site in 2011. In 2015, the ‘Golden Relationship’ with China was sealed with the offer to China to seek regulatory approval to build their own reactors at the site.
This time feels different and may presage the end of the affair rather than a hiatus. Three matters, each with profound implications for Bradwell B, have seamlessly and simultaneously intertwined, each a setback for CGN (the developer) but which together deal a possibly fatal blow to Chinese ambitions on the Blackwater.
First, in early March, CGN revealed its plans, on the eve of lockdown, for a Stage 1 public consultation. Despite pleas for the consultation to be aborted since public participation was heavily constrained during the pandemic, BRB ploughed on. This did not play well with the public.
To describe the plans as shocking might be considered understatement. The sheer scale, environmental destruction and danger of building twin 1.1GW reactors with long-term high-level radioactive waste stores, cooling towers, port facilities, accommodation blocks in a watery and potentially waterlogged environment was folly of the highest order. The plans unleashed a firestorm of protest on both sides of the estuary and the proposals were torn to shreds both in principle and in measured, carefully articulated detail. The sense of outrage was palpable.
‘A crazy scheme totally behind the times and out of touch with current trends and moods’.
‘Building a new major nuclear power plant at Bradwell is just pushing luck too far’.
Second, a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand was developing into a political catastrophe for CGN. A Planning Application for land investigations and load test in connection with the new power station was lodged with Maldon District Council. It drew a large number of comments (143) with 138 objecting and only 1 supporting.
An example of the tenor of public reaction:
‘These ground investigations represent the initial stage of creating a monster which will dwarf the landscape and disrupt the peaceful way of life of the communities surrounding the Estuary forever’.
Nevertheless, it was widely presumed that Maldon Councillors would approve the proposal. At the Council meeting, one after another the Councillors spoke out against granting permission mainly on the grounds that the investigations were a precursor for a nuclear power station of a scale that should not be contemplated on such a vulnerable site. The eventual result was 24 against, none for – an overwhelming and totally unexpected rejection of the plans from a Council hitherto favouring Bradwell B. Although the application was of itself small beer, the result was a minor political earthquake.
The third was a matter of national political significance: the growing concern with Chinese involvement in the UK’s strategic security. The Golden Relationship has soured in recent years in the face Chinese repression of human rights, suppression of Hong Kong’s independent status, its assertion of regional dominance in conflicts in the South China Sea and on the Indian border and the developing rivalry with the USA. Huawei has already been removed from future participation in the UK. Attention is now being focused on the nuclear sector, and specifically on CGN, a company directly linked to the Chinese state and military.
These fears are reflected at the local level: ‘To blithely hand over such a development as Bradwell B to a powerful, autonomous nation such as China compounds this recklessness to a preposterous level’.
Does this flurry of activity add up to more than a row of beans? I think it does. Even if the Chinese investment survives the current political furore, suspicion and lack of trust will remain making eventual cancellation or withdrawal a strong possibility. In any case, the inadequacy and unsustainability of the site and the grotesque impact of the power station on the environment and human wellbeing have always been the overriding concern.
One cannot help thinking that the Chinese company, battered by a hostile public reaction to its plans, denied a Planning Permission by a local council and beleaguered by geopolitical concerns about risks to the UK’s national security, will take a little while to lick its wounds. Whether it will reflect and withdraw or return emboldened to the fray remains to be seen. I think the Bradwell B power station is rather less likely to happen now than at the beginning of the year but I am not yet holding my breath.