Socialist Worker

Union backing for Hinkley Point could cost the earth

by Dave Sewell
Issue No. 2521

Hinkley Point today

Hinkley Point today


The decision to build a new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset is a disaster for safety, the environment and workers’ living standards.

The government agreed the joint venture with French and Chinese state-owned firms this week, after previously postponing the decision.

Unions gushed with congratulations. Unite national officer for energy Kevin Coyne said, “Today’s historic decision is very welcome. Our members are shovel ready and dead keen to start work.”

His counterpart at GMB Justin Bowden said, “This is the right decision for the country and the government is right to ignore the begrudgers and naysayers.”

Labour has tried to have its cake and eat it, with shadow energy minister Barry Gardiner arguing the project is “vital” but its “extraordinary” price tag unacceptable.

The government is guaranteeing an exorbitant “strike price” for energy from Hinkley Point C when it starts generating in 2025.

This means ordinary people struggling to pay their energy bills will have to stump up an extra £30 billion extra—a subsidy that’s ballooning from an initial estimate of £6 billion.

The price has made the project controversial even among Tories—as has the role of the Chinese state. But it wouldn’t have been possible without them.

The real case against nuclear power is fundamental, however much it costs and whoever is involved.

The case for it is built on lies. It’s not safe. Accidents, though rare, are almost inevitable given enough time.

Their disastrous effects cover wide areas and last for years, as shown at Fukushima in Japan in 2011 and Chernobyl in 1986 in what is now Ukraine.

Even when running smoothly, nuclear reactors generate waste that remains deadly for many centuries. It’s impossible to guarantee its containment for all of that time.

Nuclear power is spun as a “low carbon” source of electricity, and therefore a solution to climate change.

Trick

But this is an accounting trick—the construction and decommissioning of the power plants, the sourcing of fuel and processing of waste all generate huge greenhouse emissions.

There is an urgent need to both reduce energy consumption and roll out large scale wind, wave, tidal and solar power. New nuclear dodges this energy transformation.

Unions are cheering because the project will create jobs. But the number promised—25,000 for construction and 900 for operation—is tiny for the size of the investment. For the same money the government could create nine jobs for every one of the public service jobs it is slashing.

But the controversies do show us two things. First, that nuclear power isn’t possible without the state. Its huge cost demands state investment and ongoing subsidies. It also needs the state to pick up the bill for decommissioning or dealing with potentially catastrophic accidents.

Even state-owned EDF is staring bankruptcy in the face as its French fleet of reactors approaches the end of its life. A wholly private firm would have folded before it even started.

There is an urgent need to both reduce energy consumption and roll out large scale wind, wave, tidal and solar power.

Governments pay up for the sake of international prestige and a foundation for developing horrific weapons of mass destruction.

Second, the rows in the Tory party aren’t going away. Underneath them is a failure to meet the needs of British capitalism. Hinkley Point C isn’t the only infrastructure project bringing this out. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson said last week that the “fantasy” of Heathrow airport expansion should be “consigned to the dustbin”.

Theresa May is to give MPs a free vote on airport expansion to try and prevent cabinet resignations.

London airport expansion is a long term preoccupation of the bosses the Tories serve. Yet for almost a decade their divisions have stopped them delivering it.

Like Hinkley Point C, unions back it despite its cost to the climate. Instead of shoring up the Tories’ faltering environmental vandalism we should be fighting to stop it.

The firms building Hinkley Point C have their eye on contracts for a new generation of reactors, starting with Bradwell in Essex and Sizewell in Sussex.

These would lock us in to decades of dangerous, toxic energy that neither we nor the planet can afford.


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