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Business Comment

OUTLOOK: Surely floods will force MPs to wake up to the dangers of a greater catastrophe


Westminster Outlook Long before she set foot in the 19th Century, Sir Charles Barry-designed restoration of the viper's nest that is the Palace of Westminster, Margaret Ritchie was a teacher. Perhaps that is why she is so exasperated that only now are well-educated politicians waking up to the potential dangers that climate change pose to Britain's nuclear industry.

"We've known for years about climate change and man's inhumanity to the environment," huffs the Social Democratic and Labour Party MP for South Down. Best known for a short-lived stint as SDLP leader in 2010-11, she is now focusing her attention on the horrors that Britain's nuclear industry could cause in Ireland.

Chief of these is the impact from the Sellafield reprocessing facility in Cumbria through waste dumped into the Irish Sea, but this is a well-documented fear.

Ms Ritchie has just asked a rather pertinent question about Somerset's £14bn Hinkley Point C. This will be the first in a new generation of civil nuclear reactors in the early 2020s, but An Taisce, the National Trust for Ireland, has challenged the UK Government in the High Court (and failed) to stop the construction of a plant that is being built just 250km from the Irish coast.

Putting this Irish issue to one side, Ms Ritchie is one of many MPs concerned about flood risks at the proposed – coastal – nuclear sites. She demanded to know what assessment the Government had made over the chances of the plants one day being deluged as the world's weather becomes ever more violent.

Energy minister Michael Fallon replied that his department concluded in 2011 there was a "low risk", while last year the Government laid down what flood defence works needed to be undertaken ahead of Hinkley C's construction. He could also have mentioned that details of extra safety features emerged in mid-December to protect the plant against a Fukushima-type disaster.

However, his answer would not have been good enough, even with that additional point. The floods demand that Hinkley's developer, EDF, and the Government take another hard look at whether existing and future nuclear sites are suitably protected.

Frank Kelly is the chief executive of specialist engineer UK Flood Barriers, which recently installed extra defences to protect the Dounreay nuclear site in the Scottish Highlands. He tells me that none of those responsible for the new plants that we so desperately need to bridge what could ultimately be a yawning energy gap has contacted him about building flood defences. "It should be the first thing they think about," he sighs. "This should be looked at during the design stage."

That is a view that could be coloured by the money his company stands to make out of building these barriers. But Mr Kelly and Ms Ritchie are right: if our politicians haven't learnt much about climate change after years of research, at least they could heed the warnings of the floods and take another look at whether greater defences are needed to prevent catastrophe.