The Hinkley Point C decision – what nuclear energy means for health

1st October 2016: an addendum has been added to the discussion article written by Dr Frank Boulton on the potential role and impacts of nuclear power in the UK.  See P.19 for additions re. the recent decision to approve Hinkley Point C.

Originally published 30 August 2016:

The final decision on whether to commission the first ‘third generation’ nuclear power plant to be built in Britain at Hinkley Point C (HPC) was postponed in July this year.  This was largely due to concerns over the high agreed price for the energy produced, and the potential national security implications of giving China access to our energy infrastructure.

In the last few days China, the G20 host nation, has put pressure on Theresa May to proceed with commissioning HPC on the Somerset coast.  Meanwhile, on 3rd September, the US and China each formally ratified their commitment to the Paris global climate agreement, a move which will put pressure on the other G20 nations to move faster in phasing out subsidies for fossil fuels.

The factor linking these two developments is the impending very significant fall in the price of renewable energy, even offshore wind. Currently offshore wind-generated electricity is more expensive than the ‘Strike Price’ deal for HPC, of £92.5/megawatt hour (MWh).  However, given the rate of decline in the cost of offshore wind power generation in the last year it is likely to fall well below the strike price when HPC is commissioned – which will probably not be before 2022. The cost of solar PV has also fallen steeply in the last five years and is expected to fall over 50% more by 2025.  Meanwhile the costs of fossil-fuel and nuclear-produced electricity will not fall; and indeed are expected to rise.

Medact Trustee Frank Boulton has produced a discussion paper on why HPC is not needed, and also explains the health hazards associated with the generation of electricity from nuclear fission.

In the article Frank Boulton examines the strength of evidence of increased rates of leukaemia and other cancers among children, communities and nuclear industry workers.   Evidence of direct health impacts is mixed, but data collected in the aftermath of Fukushima and Chernobyl and in cohort and case-control studies indicate higher rates of some cancers among those exposed.

Without HPC, and other reactors that may be in the pipeline if HPC is given the green light, we would see nuclear energy largely phased out over the next ten years, with the exception of the reactor at Sizewell B.   The government would nevertheless still be committed to cutting carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 as legislated by the Climate Change Act 2008.  Therefore, if HPC is cancelled the government would need to direct energy policy towards homegrown renewables sources.

The discussion paper describes the technologies available to enable scaling up of renewable energy in ways that would make a constant electricity supply possible. The reactor due to be commissioned at HPC is an untested design, the only two comparable reactors in France and Finland being as yet unfinished, leading some to comment that the current energy policy of the UK belongs more in 1971 than 2016.  The extended piece examines in depth the case for and against Hinkley Point C.