Whether man-made climate change is occurring or not, there are few who would argue against a move towards low-carbon energy generation. One way or another, carbon emissions must be cut. Forget the tired anti-nuclear rhetoric and the ridiculous claims that a Fukushima-style disaster could hit the UK. Third generation nuclear is the way forward and the new reactors planned at Hinkley Point are the first step in the right direction.
Predictably, the mere mention of 'nuclear' has sparked a radioactive debate. We have seen the fervent green scaremongering, we have heard the arguments about rises in energy bills and claims that the money would be better spent on renewables, even though Government estimates show that energy bills will be £77 lower by 2030 with new nuclear plants.
The Government has agreed a "strike price" of £92.50 for every megawatt hour generated by Hinkley Point, which will decrease to £89.50 if a second nuclear plant is agreed at Sizewell in Suffolk. While this is almost twice the current wholesale cost of electricity, it is less expensive than many current renewable technologies. According to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, onshore wind currently costs around £100 per megawatt hour, offshore wind comes in at £155, solar costs £125 while wave and tidal power are completely unfeasible at £305 per megawatt hour.
Once operational, the Hinkley Point project will meet around 7% of the UK's total energy supply. It will also create around 25,000 jobs during construction, with 900 permanent jobs available over the plant's lifetime. During peak construction phase, it is estimated that the supply chain will be worth approximately £100 million per year to the local economy. A further £128 million will be used to pay for community projects once the plant is fully operational.
While the new build will cost around £16 billion, £2 billion more than initial estimates, it will provide a constant source of low-carbon power for the next 60 years. Conversely, a planned 339 turbine wind farm in the Moray Firth will cost around £4.5 billion to construct. At best, it will provide power for 1 million homes and even with constant, expensive maintenance, the turbines will start to fall apart within 15 years.
Intermittency will not be an issue with the reactors at Hinkley Point. Unlike renewables, nuclear power provides a constant, steady supply of energy with around 90% efficiency. Offshore wind struggles to reach 30%. The Hinkley Point deal has been delayed so long because of the dogmatic focus on intermittent wind energy. The nuclear companies have held out for a guarantee of double the going rate for any electricity they produce over the entire lifetime of the plant because they know that every time the wind blows, the national grid is obliged to take power from the turbines to meet climate change obligations. Understandably, they are not prepared to invest in expensive nuclear plant if they have to run on standby every time there is a gentle breeze!
Put simply, the Hinkley Point project makes sense. Nearly two-thirds of the UK's current electricity generating capacity will be decommissioned in the next 15 years. Eight of the UK's nine existing nuclear power plants and almost all coal plants will be replaced in the near future. We've already seen that renewables cannot possibly fill the void. No amount of wind turbines can provide a secure supply of energy for our homes.
There are still questions about the Hinkley Point deal, mainly the £92.50 price which could be adjusted if operational costs increase, but we are facing a looming energy crisis. We are legally obliged to decarbonise. We must also find ways of reducing household bills. We must cut carbon emissions but we must also keep the lights on. We have lost the race for renewables. We need a low-carbon alternative which will provide a constant source of electricity and ensure energy security. It is clear that third generation nuclear power is that alternative. The Hinkley Point project will prove it.