Barry Jones, Emeritus Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Reading and a member of the Blackwater Against New Nuclear Group (BANNG) Core Group, discusses the economic, environmental and political issues raised by the proposed new Chinese nuclear power station at Bradwell. Professor Jones lives in Tollesbury.
The accords signed by Prime Minister David Cameron and the Chinese President at the end of the latter’s State Visit to the UK marked a significant step towards a new fleet of nuclear power stations throughout the UK and towards a Chinese built and operated nuclear plant at Bradwell. This development comes in the face of increasingly widespread doubts about the general economic wisdom of building new nuclear power stations and growing concerns about the environmental and security implications of permitting Chinese state-owned companies to build and operate nuclear power stations in the UK.
New nuclear – economic hypocrisy unbounded
The economic case for a new nuclear power station at Hinkley has been disputed by no less than the authoritative Financial Times, which argued in a leader article of 9 September, 2015 that: ‘…from the perspective of the UK consumer the terms look even less desirable. Few would bet on wholesale electricity prices holding steady at double their present level for the next half century. Some experts even hypothesise that they might fall, both magnifying the scale of the [nuclear] subsidies and making them permanent. Meanwhile the cost of alternative low carbon sources, such as solar, and better battery technology, is falling fast’.
Such views have encouraged the Chief Executive of the National Grid, Steve Holliday, to conclude that: ‘The idea of baseload power is already outdated’ and that more distributed, smart systems of electricity production and consumption are now required.
The Government has, however, become fixated upon the supposed ‘need’ for new nuclear power stations and largely subordinated the transformational potential of a range of genuinely ‘renewable’ technologies – from the increasingly widespread solar and wind generators, through to stationary arrays of hydrogen fuel cells (which could be used both to generate electricity from biological materials and to ‘store’ electrical potential created by other renewables).
Hypocrisy abounds in the commitment to new nuclear power stations. Subsidies for genuine renewables are deemed to be imposing an unacceptable burden on electricity consumers and must be removed; subsidies – long-lasting and massive – are OK for nuclear, however. Worse, much of the rush to reduce governmental deficits since 2010 has been justified by the supposed immorality of endowing succeeding generations with debts; a concern that seems not to matter when it comes to the persisting costs that will be imposed on generations to come by any new fleet of nuclear power stations.
The fixation with new nuclear at any cost has, however, been reinforced by a clear wish to cosy-up to the Chinese Government in order to secure, for financiers in the City of London, a significant share of the growing off-shore business in the Chinese currency, the renminbi, as a number of recent reports in The Financial Times have made clear.
New nuclear is an excessively costly and contested programme that will impose unacceptable costs upon electricity consumers, particularly the poorest.
Environmental devastation – both now and for generations to come
New nuclear power stations at Bradwell would require massive levels of cooling water. Water taken from the estuary would kill most of its wild-life. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has recently added its voice to the widespread warnings, including those from BANNG, about the environmental danger from a new nuclear power station.
Water cooling from further out to sea would require extensive and costly engineering efforts. Air cooling could complement more limited water-based cooling but would necessitate huge cooling towers that would dominate and disfigure the Dengie Peninsula.
New nuclear power stations would also add, substantially, to the nuclear waste problem at Bradwell, by adding stores of highly radioactive spent fuel and other highly active wastes from the new power station(s) to the existing stocks of low- and intermediate-level waste. The combined volumes and vastly increased radioactivity would add, significantly, to the potential attractiveness of the Bradwell site to terrorists bent upon the release of nuclear contamination.
The Bradwell site would also be exposed to the growing dangers of flooding by North Sea surges at a time of steadily rising sea levels and the growing frequency of intense storms and other impacts of climate change. Radioactive wastes would remain in deteriorating conditions for generations to come.
New nuclear reactors and radioactive stores at Bradwell would be an environmental disaster in waiting.
Chinese reactors on the Blackwater – a perilious risk to national security and the safety of the Blackwater communities
The opposition of Bernard Jenkin, MP for Harwich and North Essex, to the proposals for Bradwell is reinforced by the specific, and very real, security threats posed by the role of Chinese state-owned companies. The Times on 16 October, 2015, reported that: ‘A well-placed defence source said that senior military officers were very concerned about the prospects of China building a nuclear power station in Britain. There are fears that technological “trapdoors or backdoors” could be inserted into computer systems allowing Beijing to bypass British security measures’. And a nuclear power station specialist – Brian Parker – who was involved in commissioning the nuclear plants at Hinkley Point A, Sizewell A and Wyfla – has argued in a letter to The Times (17 October, 2015) that: ‘our nuclear inspectorate will be challenged as never before, and will have to protect against possibly undetectable deliberate malfunction design in the software’.
Naïve arguments that commercial considerations would restrain the Chinese Government, and its state-controlled companies, to exercise restraint in all circumstances founder against the historical record of past challenges to the prevailing international hierarchy. Great tensions and uncertainties are created when a rising power – like China – has confronted the established leading world power – like the USA (even if that confrontation is initially focussed upon East and South East Asia). Such power challenges in international relations have frequently led to dangerous international tensions and often ended in major wars. Conflict between China and the USA would thus expose the dangers created by a Chinese-run nuclear power station in the UK (at Bradwell). Bradwell’s electricity output might be cut off at a time of maximum embarrassment; knowledge of the operating systems for the wider national grid might enable a hostile Chinese regime to disrupt the UK’s electricity system nation-wide, and, at the extreme, intense armed conflict affecting China might encourage a desperate, or vengeful, regime to turn the Bradwell nuclear power station into a ‘dirty bomb’, spreading contamination across a sizeable portion of eastern Essex.
The dangers of conflict between China and the USA are far from imaginary, moreover. The USA has already had to deploy one of its modern destroyers to challenge the controversial claims of China for sovereignty over a wide swathe of the South China Sea and the extensive building of new, militarised islands with which it is seeking to back up its contentious claims.
Chinese construction and operation of a new nuclear power station at Bradwell poses a huge, potential risk to the security of the UK’s power supplies; the UK’s relations with major allies like the USA; and, in the extreme, to the safety of those living within the wider area around Bradwell.