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For many years nuclear power has been a controversial topic. Some of the concerns have been based around safety issues, others around the question of how to deal with nuclear waste. The urgency of climate change has pushed nuclear power back up the agenda, however, as it offers a low carbon option for producing electricity. One of the results of this shift in emphasis has been the commissioning and development of Hinkley Point C, the UKs first new nuclear power plant for more than 20 years.
Last updated: March 2021
The plant is being developed in Somerset by EDF (Electricite de France), an energy company owned by the French Government.
What is Hinkley Point and how was it developed?
The initial stage of the development of Hinkley Point was a consultation process which involved member of the public and concerned bodies and took place between 2009 and 2011. Following this, the UK government and EDF entered into a commercial agreement in 2013, setting out the key terms of the Hinkley Point project. These terms were approved by the European Union in 2014, and the final investment decision was made in the latter half of 2016, after which construction of the Hinkley Point nuclear reactors could begin.
Controversy Over the Financing of Hinkley Point
The deal created to finance the construction of Hinkley Point was not without its detractors. At the time the deal was struck, Hinkley Point was set to be the most expensive power station in the world, on course to cost twice as much as the 2012 Olympics. The counter argument to this, of course, was that nuclear power represents the future of ‘clean’ low carbon energy generation, and that Hinkley Point C, which uses an innovative new reactor design, represented the UK staking its place in that clean, green future.
What is the Strike Price?
Much of the controversy surrounding the deal which the UK government struck with EDF focused upon the ‘strike price’. In simple terms, this means the UK government agreed a guaranteed price which it would pay EDF for every unit of electricity generated by Hinkley Point for the next 35 years. The strike price was set at £92.50 per megawatt hour (MWh), and will rise with inflation in the future. A MWh is approximately the amount of electricity used by 330 homes in an hour.
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Why Was This Controversial?
The controversy around this figure arises from the fact that, over the next 35 years, the price per unit of electricity in the UK could drop. Ironically, if Hinkley Point performs as expected it may have a role in driving this price down, as will the greater competition in the energy market place, via which consumers can quickly and easily switch to the provider offering the best value for money. If the price does drop below £92.50 per MWh, then the shortfall will have to be made up by electricity bills across the UK being ‘topped up’.
Exactly Where Will Hinkley Point C be Located?
The Hinkley Point nuclear power station will take up more than 430 acres of Bridgewater Bay, which is situated on Somerset’s north coast. For those readers in the UK, 430 acres is roughly as large as 325 football pitches, which gives some idea of the sheer scale of the project.
Construction facts and figures
- Completing Hinkley Point C will mean finishing 60 separate major structures in 7 years.
- 25,000 jobs and 1,000 apprenticeships will be created during the construction.
- The structures include 230,000 tonnes of reinforcements.
- 1.2m cubic metres of concrete will be used – enough to build Cardiff’s millennium Stadium 75 times over.
- More than 50 tower cranes are working on the construction site.
Potential delays in the construction of Hinkley Point C
Like most large scale infrastructure projects, the Hinkley Point C power station has experienced delays and increases in the estimated final cost. In a statement issued in September of last year, EDF announced that a review of costs, schedule and organisation of the project had found that there was a risk of the project running 15 months behind schedule and costing as much as £2.9 billion more than the original estimate. Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the project hard, with the factories serving the construction working at just 50%. This has meant a risk of three vital deadlines being missed during 2020 and the overall completion date of 2025 slipping. If this does happen, experts warn that something will have to be put in place to cover the shortfall between existing generators being retired and Hinkley Point coming on line.
How Will Hinkley Point Generate Electricity?
The actual reactors which will be generating the electricity at Hinkley Point are an innovative new design. They are so innovative, in fact, that no other power station in the world currently has a reactor of this kind in operation, although they are also in development in France and Finland. They are known as European Pressurised Water Reactors – referred to as EPR – and are designed to be safer and more efficient than traditional reactors.
One of the main plus points of EPR is the sustainability they offer, as they use less uranium than traditional reactors and produce a third less radioactive waste than the type of water reactor which is in use around the world today.
How Will the EPR Reactors Work?
In simple terms, the EPR reactors will generate heat, and this heat will be used to produce steam which, in turn, powers a turbine in order to generate electricity. Each of these generators will be able to produce 1,630MW or electrical power. Putting these figures in terms which are easier to understand for the lay person:
- The power generated will be sufficient to serve almost 6 million homes.
- Hinkley Point is predicted to supply 7% of the electricity forecasted to be needed by the UK during the 2020s.
- At the same time the nuclear power station will be offsetting nine million tonnes of carbon dioxide.
How was the Safety of the Reactors Assessed
The process of developing a nuclear power station like Hinkley Point in the UK involves going through a very strict four year long assessment involving the Office for Nuclear Regulation and the Environment Agency, as well as a stringent Generic Design Assessment process. All parts of this process are designed to ensure that the Hinkley Point power station meets the strictest standards of safety and environmental protection.
What Kind of Safety Standards have to be met? </h3<
Like all nuclear power stations currently operational across the UK, Hinkley Point had to be designed so that it is able to withstand natural hazards which are expected to occur less than once every ten thousand years. These include events such as tsunami, storm surges and high tides, and the design has to be able to withstand such events whether they are isolated or happen in combination with each other. Some of the specific measures taken at Hinkley Point C to ensure that it will remain safe if events of this kind take place include the following:
- The platform level of the site is set at 14.0 metres above sea level
- The site is also protected by a sea wall which has a crest level – the height of wave it can protect against – of 13.5 metres
- The calculations around the sea level protection have been made with allowances for the rise in sea levels which could result from climate change over the 60 year life span of the site
Once the Hinkley Point C power station is up and running, regular exercises based on scenarios agreed with the Office for Nuclear Regulation will take place, with the co-operation and involvement of other regulatory bodies, local authorities, central government and the emergency services.
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Updated on 31 Mar, 2021