Andy Blowers speculates on the real reason behind the Environment Agency’s recent public consultation on Bradwell B in the BANNG column for the April 2021 edition of Regional Life magazine
Time to regroup
The February announcement by Chinese nuclear developer, CGN, that it would pause all project work and engagement on Bradwell B for ‘at least a year’ seems in sharp contrast to the Environment Agency (EA) pressing ahead with its consultation on the Generic Design Assessment (GDA) on the proposed reactor. Could it be that these apparently conflicting positions are, in fact, mutually compatible? Let me try to explain.
CGN has cited the pandemic as a key reason for the slowdown. Yet, only a year ago, the plans for Bradwell B had emerged, all bells and whistles, just as the pandemic took hold. Despite BANNG and others urging the company to suspend its consultation during the period of lockdown, it pressed ahead claiming the national need for the project was urgent and it was in the public interest that the proposed development ‘is not indefinitely or even substantially delayed’.
Now all is silent on the Bradwell B front while the team apparently regroups, vaguely indicating that essential engagement with local councils and stakeholders will ‘begin again in future years’. An obvious inference from this is that the project is now in limbo and, for Bradwell B at least, the chances of its resurrection must be close to zero. For opponents of Bradwell B it is better that the project sinks now while it is still virtual rather than subsides into the waters under the hammering impacts of climate change when it is a reality of radioactive menace.
Time to consult
But hold on a moment. In another corner of the wood, the Environment Agency has been beavering away with its public consultation on the GDA of the Chinese designed Hualong 1 pressurised water reactor. And yes, it is as technical and tedious as it sounds but, nonetheless, not something to be disregarded, if for no other reason than that it appears to keep the Chinese reactor alive when its producers are withdrawing. So what’s it all about and is it worth responding?
For three months, the EA has made a commendable effort appealing to the general public and stakeholders to respond. ‘We are the Environment Agency. We protect and improve the environment’ and ‘we welcome everyone’s views’. Despite the brio of the appeal, the experience of responding falls somewhat flat.
The consultation document is a formidable 169 pages (plus nine assessment reports) written in technical and uncompromising language. Moreover, it tends to present conclusions to be confirmed rather than open up issues for discussion. The scope is, therefore, limited and evasive.
The consultation is not about Bradwell, but about a ‘generic site’ specified with characteristics similar to Bradwell. This is confusing but it means that a whole range of issues of importance to Bradwell, such as impacts on habitats, the cooling system, flooding, etc., can be passed down the line on the grounds that it is generic, not specific. Overall, the impression is of a decision-making process that is fragmented, incremental and uncoordinated, a situation which is likely to favour the developer and confuse and distract opponents.
Despite its enthusiasm for hearing our views, it is obvious the consultation is not interested in the big issues that concern us most. This is made clear: ‘Our consultation does not relate to a specific site. It is not about the need for nuclear power, the siting of nuclear power stations, nor the safety and security of the design’. So, no point, then, in asking the EA the key question: ‘how can the development of a mega nuclear power station on the generic site conceivably serve the EA’s objective to ‘protect and improve the environment?’.
A passport and a platform
Given the consultation does not seem fit for its ostensible purpose, we may well ask, what is its real purpose? I suggest it is nothing more, nor less than to provide the developer ultimately with the seal of approval from the UK’s regulators, regarded as among the most rigorous in the world. With the imprimatur of UK design approval, the Hualong 1 reactor would be able to launch into markets worldwide. This is what the developer has wanted and what the EA signals it is likely to get. The EA’s preliminary conclusion is that the design is on course to be ‘suitable for use in England’.
And what of Bradwell B? CGN is still going through the motions but may well be considering its position. Does it really want to persist with the project in the face of firmly entrenched opposition? Gaining permission to develop was always improbable and has looked increasingly impossible. But, with a GDA in its pocket, CGN has a passport and a platform, and may be content to walk away from Bradwell and try its luck elsewhere.