theguardian Wednesday 21st October 2015.
The decision to allow China to build nuclear power stations in the UK is sheer folly, especially at a time when Cameron is shutting the door on renewable energy
The grand kowtow continues its humiliating progress today, but beggars can’t be choosers. The Queen and all her family – good grief, even the Duke of York – are rolled out as the golden words flow. Britain always risks being a figure of fun as it grasps at the coat-tails of the great powers: enough leaks from our American cousins have revealed how often our “special relationship” dream has been mocked in Washington. What snickers echo in Beijing’s labyrinths of power?
Red carpets for tyrants, dictators, feudal sheikhs and torturers of every hue – the Queen has been obliged to smile upon them all. Remember, she had Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu to stay in 1978 at Jim Callaghan’s behest: after parading with her in her open-topped carriage, he returned home with two labradors, later seen riding round Bucharest in their own limousine as his people starved. Ethical diplomacy? An oxymoron dispelled so often by “needs must”.
Today is the big sign-up, as Mont Blanc pens are put to one of the maddest deals ever struck by any government, let alone by David Cameron, who has the word “security” on a repeat key for every speech. A Chinese state-controlled company, with a minority French state partner, will build (and control) massive nuclear power plants at Hinkley Point, Bradwell in Essex and Sizewell. British intelligence agency sources are said to be so concerned that they have let it be known in public that they can never know what hidden capabilities are built into the plants’ software.
On the one hand, the government needs four new Trident subs to protect us from unknown – Chinese? – future nuclear foes in a dangerous world. But on the other hand Cameron and Osborne are nonchalant about the blatant risk of the Chinese planting undetectable devices that could, say, blow up the plants, with which to blackmail us if they chose. Peter Mandelson blithely says that if ever the Chinese used that leverage they would forfeit their world investments – but we are talking about a hypothetical war footing. If that’s too outlandish to worry about, what’s the point of Trident? Cameron can do one or other of these nuclear programmes, but logically not both.
These nuclear power plans are bizarre in every way. Hinkley Point will be the most expensive plant in the world, at £24bn. To pay for it, monumental subsidies lasting until 2060 will dwarf any PFI ever devised. Osborne begs the Chinese to pay for this and for HS2 as well on a never–never bill for our grandchildren, when we could borrow the money at negligible interest and be in hock to no one. But his damaging fiscal charter allows no such investment.
The Chinese get a guaranteed price of £92.50 per megawatt hour – double the usual price. But even with this walloping sweetener of a profit stream, no other company would touch it. So why, exactly, do the Chinese want it?
This huge subsidy will be added to our energy bills. Yet the government has just slashed a far lower £9-a-year subsidy for wind and solar power, saying they want to relieve householders of that burden. Nuclear may be a desirable small part of the energy mix as we get closer to black- and brownouts, but only if the price matches other technologies. How perverse to axe support for wind and solar just as it nears viability. As Patrick Barkham explains, solar subsidies could be gradually withdrawn but are needed now. As it is, the sudden 87% slash in subsidy is sending solar and wind companies crashing. Onshore wind is destroyed by the government’s refusal to grant planning permission. Even offshore wind companies are being frozen out. Ecotricity, a green provider, says almost all UK electricity could be supplied by renewables by 2030. With a little gas backup, UK electricity could be virtually emissions-free.
If the gigantic, risky investment in these nuclear plants were diverted to a green energy industry rush, the rewards would be immense and Britain’s reputation as a vanguard not a laggard on climate change would be invaluable. Soft power is better than kowtowing to hard power. The UN’s chief scientist, Professor Jacquie McGlade, warned this week that Britain’s cuts to renewable subsidies put us at odds with the unprecedented pledges made by 150 other countries for the Paris climate change summit in December: she calls it “a very perverse signal”.
Visit Black Ditch, the site just near Hinkley Point where the government turned down an application for wind turbines, as they do all wind applications. It’s a scrappy bit of ex-industrial land beside a motorway, under Hinkley Point’s pylons. Let that stand as a symbol for the folly of the vast and risky nuclear plan, displacing wiser green investments.
What people still don’t get about the Cameron/Osborne regime is how virtually every decision springs from a random set of extreme ideologies. Instinctive loathing of “green crap”, including wind and solar power, is one. Embracing some monster building projects, especially nuclear, regardless of cost or worth, is another. But their vaulting ambition for grand projects can only come with soaring off-the-books debt, despite all the lectures on austerity and balanced budgets.