Nearly 200 people packing the MICA Centre in West Mersea on a damp and dark December evening heard two Professors talk of the many obstacles facing the proposal for Chinese reactors to be built at the Bradwell site. Stephen Thomas, Emeritus Professor of Energy Policy at Greenwich University, and Andy Blowers, Emeritus Professor of Social Sciences at the Open University and Chair of BANNG, both recognised the project announced during the Chinese President’s recent state visit to the UK had considerable political momentum behind it but, they argued, there was a long way to go and opposition was strong and determined and could help to stop the project dead in its tracks.
By curious coincidence the previous day the two companies developing the project, the China General Nuclear Power Corporation and EDF Energy, had delivered a letter to households around the Backwater estuary announcing their intention to develop at Bradwell, stating this was at an early stage with no developed proposals or defined timeline. What they did reveal were a telephone number (0800 197 6102) and an email address (email@example.com). At the meeting Andy Blowers said: ‘Just by chance this letter is circulated a day before our meeting, suggesting they are already nervous about the reception they will get. We will encourage them to come out and talk with us to defend their outrageous plans to devastate the Blackwater. Meanwhile I urge all of you to get on the phone or the computer to let them know the strength and quality of the opposition they face’.
Can we rely on the Chinese?
In his speech to the meeting, Stephen Thomas outlined the trail of broken promises about nuclear development with its high costs, high subsidies and lack of any real progress. Projects in France and Finland were overrunning costs and timelines and running into technical problems. EDF, responsible for the Hinkley Point and Sizewell projects, was in deep financial trouble and there were doubts it would be able to proceed with them and also provide its one-third share of the Bradwell project.
All of this bodes ill for the Bradwell deal. It was unclear how many reactors were planned and the reactor type, the Hualong 1, was nowhere yet in operation, so effectively was a prototype. There were serious concerns about getting into bed with the Chinese. These included concerns about safety, about technical quality, about our national security. Senior military figures and MPs have warned that reliance on unreliable partners could leave the country dangerously vulnerable. Professor Thomas posed the question: ‘Do we know enough about Chinese capabilities to rely on them’?
It’s Ground Hog Day
Andy Blowers said it was a bit like Ground Hog day. BANNG had spent the past eight years opposing the proposal for Bradwell at every turn. Now it had to go through all the same processes again, except this time it was not just the site but the fact that there was a real developer anxious to get things moving. He dismissed the common myths about the project – that ‘It’ll be much the same as before’ (it would be much bigger and with highly radioactive wastes stored on site in perpetuity); that ‘we’ve lived with it and there were no problems’ (there were problems as the discharges from dissolution of FED prove and there was always the danger of a major accident or terrorist attack); that ‘It’s going to happen anyway’ (despite the political push at present the project had a long way to go and could be unhinged along the way).
‘We should not dismiss what’s been achieved so far. We have built up a formidable case against Bradwell which we will now deploy at every opportunity and at every level. Government have declared they are well aware of the opposition and it’s clear the developers are very wary, hence the letter. There are some critical reasons why Bradwell is a totally inappropriate site and presents an unacceptable risk to people and the environment’.
He concluded: ‘It may be a long haul but this project must be fought at every stage. The hope must be that it will falter and fail once the developers realise quite how problematic and unacceptable Bradwell is as a site for a new Chinese nuclear power station’.
StephenThomas summed up the practical hurdles to be overcome ‘such as putting together a financial package, getting approval for the Chinese design from the British safety regulator and determining whether Bradwell is an appropriate site for large reactors’. There were also serious strategic issues that needed to be considered, for example, whether China was a reliable partner for such an important investment, whether the presence of Chinese personnel in UK nuclear facilities compromised national security, and whether Chinese suppliers could meet the quality standards the UK demands’.
The talks were followed by a very lively and well-informed discussion, chaired by BANNG Core Group member, Professor Barry Jones. Among the issues raised was the quality control, or rather lack of it, that might be encountered with the reactors. Stephen Thomas explained that problems with the Chinese and French reactor vessels had not been spotted by the French regulator until this year, although construction had begun in 2011. He said there could be problems as the British nuclear industry did not exist, there was no nuclear expertise and very few university nuclear engineering departments and serious issues about the lack of nuclear skills to look after even the current power stations.
Another questioner was concerned about the hasty decision over Bradwell and fears that the regulators might feel under undue pressure. Andy Blowers responded that in his experience the regulators were honest, serious and independent. However, their job tended not to be to stop projects but to say that certain things needed to be done. It might be that the problem of cooling water could not be overcome. He worried about the level of expertise available and at the recent Government guidance that the regulators had a duty to help promote the economic growth of companies as well as their overriding concern for safety. Contact must be maintained with them ‘to help to keep them honest’.
Judy Lea, from Maldon, queried whether a pipeline out to the North Sea would solve the cooling water problem. Andy Blowers replied that while anything is possible the costs, the technology and the vulnerability to terrorism would make this very unlikely and he doubted whether the regulators would allow it.
Tony Crosby suggested a boycott by consumers of EDF. Welcoming that idea, the Chairman, Barry Jones, said that the big electricity companies had been Trojan horses from the start, lobbying government and promoting nuclear power at the expense of much cheaper and cleaner renewables.
Questions were also asked about who pays for the costs of decommissioning, about the Chinese regulatory system, about the alternatives to nuclear energy and how it would be possible to sustain opposition over the long period ahead.
In response, Stephen Thomas pointed out that the costs were always far higher than suggested at the outset and that liabilities would fall on future generations to pay. ‘What sort of morality is that? Pretty shabby’. As to alternatives to nuclear power, the question should be, rather, is nuclear power an alternative? ‘Why put reliance on nuclear when it might not happen?’ he asked.
Barry Jones alluded to the stupidity of a system where renewable companies were paid not to generate power, which failed to provide incentives for storage through batteries and hydrogen cells and where there seemed a blissful unawareness of the speed of technological advances while clinging to an expensive, dangerous and outmoded technology.
As to the continuing campaign to oppose new nuclear at Bradwell, Andy Blowers said the issue would not go away but neither would the opposition. Even if the Chinese walked away, the site would still be there. ‘We have to make sure the site is declared unacceptable,’ he said.