There is only one response to the news that an energy consortium has been granted a licence to operate two new nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point in the UK: We’ll believe it when we see it.
Two of the biggest questions that are asked when energy companies decide to build a new nuclear reactor are: “How much will it cost?” and “When will it be finished?” – In this case the energy companies in the NNB GenCo joint venture to build new reactors are French energy giant EdF and its partner Centrica.
Both questions have the same – and only – answer: We’ll tell you when it’s finished.
Just don’t expect that answer to come from the mouth of a nuclear industry lobbyist.
(Two other big questions are: “Is it safe?” and “What are you going to do with all that nuclear waste?” They also both have the same answer: It’s somebody else’s problem.)
Cases where nuclear reactors have been built on time and on budget are incredibly rare. There are only four other nuclear reactors being built in Europe right now. Construction of two new reactors at Mochovce in Slovakia began in 1987 and, after many delays and shortage of finance, they may be complete in 2012 or 2013. That's a mere 26 years.
The new reactor at Olkiluoto in Finland is currently six years behind schedule and at least €3.6 billion over budget.
Another reactor, at Flamanville in France, is five years late and its cost has doubled to €6 bn. Both French and Finnish reactors are the so-called revolutionary third generation European Pressurized Reactor (EPR) and have suffered the same disturbing safety and construction failures. It’s this design that EdF and Centrica want to build in the UK.
That’s more than €12 bn in total wasted. Can you imagine the renewable energy and energy saving projects that could have been built using that money?
It’s not just new European reactors that have these crippling problems. EPR reactors being built in China are having precisely the same construction and safety problems as their French and Finnish cousins. The schedule for a new nuclear plant in Georgia, US is slipping. The Watts Bar nuclear power plant in Tennessee is late and massively over budget.
Even repairing already existing reactors is a process where budgets and schedules might as well be written in smoke.
Still, all these failures don’t stop the nuclear industry being relentlessly upbeat and overly optimistic. Tatsuro Ishizuka, vice president of Hitachi which has just joined another consortium - Horizon Nuclear Power — that hopes to build nuclear reactors at Wylfa and Oldbury in the UK — said recently: “Our aim is to build safe nuclear power stations, on time and on budget, to provide long-term, affordable energy.”
Read that again. It’s an aim. Not a promise or a guarantee. The nuclear industry doesn’t do promises or guarantees.
I hereby announce my “aim” to be President of the World by 2020.