Drawn-out negotiations ‘put Hinkley Point jobs at risk’

New power plants are needed to bridge the UK’s energy gap but plans for Hinkley C have been stalled by a long-running row between EDF and the Treasury

The nuclear plants at Hinkley Point in Somerset are so old that the health & safety notice boards warn workers not to take snuff into a building that houses two uranium-fuelled reactors. In the shadow of a 90ft high, 650-ton “charge machine” that lifts carbon-encased tubes of uranium from the reactors with little more than the twist of a two-inch joystick, operating technician Rodney Western laughs: “When I started in an engineering factory 40 years ago all the old boys would say to me ‘here young ’un, try some of this snuff’. This is the South-west, mind.”

Sporting a terrific variation of a goatee, Mr Western is speaking on the fifth floor of Hinkley B, from where Weston-super-Mare is visible in the distance. A decade from now his colleagues will go through the seemingly endless radiation clearance checks, such as putting their arms in what look like Dyson Airblade hand dryers for six seconds, for the last time when the reactors generate their final watts. The neighbouring A site, its reactors contained within the twin blue-coloured blocks that overlook the Bristol Channel, has been long since obsolete. 

In fact, no civil nuclear station has been opened on British shores since 1995.

But a two-minute drive away is the site of the proposed Hinkley C, an area surrounded by 30km of barbed wire that is roughly the size of the London Olympic Park.

The place should be buzzing, one of the biggest construction sites in Europe with 5,600 workers at its peak focused on building a £14bn project that will bridge Britain’s yawning energy gap. Convinced by Hinkley’s business model, Japanese and Spanish energy groups would then follow suit with a wave of new civil nukes lighting up the UK.

But the Treasury and EDF have long been battling over the subsidy that the energy giant will receive for building the C site. Irritated, EDF even set a rather arbitrary – and sure to be ignored – deadline for the end of this month to sort out a deal, when even optimists close to the table believe a compromise is still weeks away. 

So, rather than excavating earth and laying the foundations of a project that would boost the regional economy by £100m a year, there is a largely empty stretch of land, bar the odd bat-house and canteen. Trees have been cleared, a solitary crane moves slightly with the gusts of coastal wind, and Gurkhas share a joke in one of the few G4S security vans guarding the site.

Workers are filling their hours dealing with badgers. While the Government has been keen to cull the short-legged omnivores, EDF’s staff tempted them out of the site’s boundaries with honey-coated peanuts. However, three weeks ago they tried to get back home, slyly bypassing those G4S guards by digging under the fence.

“We’ve even given the badgers TB inoculation jabs,” smiles construction director Nigel Cann, before pointing out the seriousness of an impasse that has turned burly builders into concerned ecologists. “The sooner I move from being David Attenborough to Isambard Kingdom Brunel the better.”

Mr Cann admits to being “frustrated” as he has “assembled a group of highly skilled people to build a power station, not to cogitate”. Around 150 of those staff have even been let go recently, as there simply wasn’t enough to do, and Mr Cann warns more people will be moved on to other projects when most of the little remaining preparatory work ends in May. EDF is understood to have broadly agreed terms with the energy department until the Treasury intervened this year, arguing the taxpayer could get a better deal. The French group needs a guarantee that should the price of nuclear-generated electricity fall below a certain point, the Government will make up the difference.

This point is known as the strike price and is the way EDF can convince shareholders that they should definitely get a return on the billions poured into a British power scheme. At the moment, the Treasury, perhaps emboldened by a belief that shale gas could prove a solution to the country’s energy problem, is refusing to pay more than £85 per megawatt hour. EDF thinks that number must start with a “9”.

Until the agreement is signed, Mr Cann won’t be able to risk spending more money on a project that is costing £1m a month. He adds that the “less the strike price is the less money you’ve got to mitigate risk until you reach a level that becomes untenable”.

As the strike price dwindles, there is not as much money to set aside for cost and timetable overruns. Also, elements of the project will have to be pared back to make savings and eventually that could reach a point where the station simply can’t do its job properly.

Hinkley C is supposed to open in early 2019, but each delay makes this timetable less realistic. Mr Cann declines to comment on whether the first electricity can still be generated in six years’ time, but many industry observers are now quoting 2020 as a likelier opening date.

Mr Cann gives some details of what his team will have to do to shut down the site should negotiations collapse. Trees will have to be replanted and the site returned to its previous condition. At least that will please the badgers.

“It would be a sad day,” sighs Mr Cann. “It would feel like I’ve wasted two years of my life.”

It would also upset Peter Higginson, who is technical and safety support manager at Hinkley B. Mr Higginson’s father and grandfather worked on the Iron Bridge coal-fired stations on the banks of the River Severn, and now his son, a geologist, is keen to follow.

Hinkley C would be a perfect place for that family tradition to be continued. “I’m excited about new build because I can see an energy gap looming,” adds Mr Higginson.

With every day that the Government fails to find common ground with EDF, that familial dream fades a little and the energy gap widens.

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to US
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
Arts and Entertainment
film

Marvel has released the first teaser trailer a week early after it leaked online

Extras
indybest
Life and Style
CHARGE BOOSTER: Aeroplane mode doesn't sound very exciting, but it can be a (phone) hacker's friend. Turning on the option while charging your mobile will increase the speed at which your phone battery charges
techNew book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
News
i100
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voicesVicky Chandler: Zoella shows us that feminism can come in all forms
Life and Style
health
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

IT Systems Business Analyst - Watford - £28k + bonus + benefits

£24000 - £28000 per annum + bonus & benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Business Syste...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Real Staffing

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: The SThree group is a world le...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Comission: SThree: The SThree group is a world lea...

Trainee Recruitment Consultants

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £Competitive: SThree: SThree Group and have be...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?