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Explainer: Why are people worried about a nuclear power plant being built 250km from Ireland?

Last week, the UK government stalled on signing off on a new nuclear power plant – just the latest setback in a decade long saga.

General view of Hinkley Point B Nuclear power station.
General view of Hinkley Point B Nuclear power station.
Image: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

THE NEWS HIT headlines last week that a massive new power plant was soon to be built at Hinkley Point in England, just 250km from the coast of Ireland.

Hinkley Point C was given the final investment approval by French energy giant EDF, which would be building the plant in conjunction with the Chinese.

The project will cost a whopping £18 billion (€21.2 billion) to complete, and EDF says it will supply 7% of the UK’s energy when it’s finally done.

All that was left was for the UK government to sign off on the plant, and over a decade’s worth of delays and setback would finally come to an end.

However, at the last minute the UK government stalled on giving its approval, with the UK Energy Secretary saying it needed to review the project before a decision would be made in “early autumn”.

Reports that new British prime minister Theresa May is against aspects of the project have since surfaced, throwing its future into turmoil.

It was just the latest setback for the project, which has been at the centre of decade long saga of funding issues and arguments with the project vocally opposed by activists and politicians on both sides of the Irish Sea.

So, what is the history of Hinkley Point C, will it be built and why are so many people in the UK and Ireland opposed to it?

Hinkley Point nuclear power station plans Hinkley Point B Source: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

What is Hinkley Point C

Hinkley Point is an area in Somerset in the south west of England that currently houses two nuclear power plants: Hinkley Point A (1965) and Hinkley Point B (producing energy since 1976).

The Hinkley Point C project emerged from Britain’s commitment to “new nuclear” in 2006 following its national energy review, meaning that it would replace older nuclear plants with new ones.

It was realised at the time that the de-commissioning and shutting down of older nuclear power stations and other fuel stations would lead to significant problems for energy delivery in the future.

The government opted to go for nuclear power combined with renewables like wind and solar energy to meet future demand.

Clegg visits wind farm File photo of the Inner Dowsing offshore wind farm in the North Sea. Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

In February 2007, EDF said that it would have a plant operational in time for Christmas 2017, and designs were submitted and safety checks carried out later that year.

However, since then there has been setback after setback to do with design, permission and funding – with various funding and investment models falling through.

At the centre of the project is EDF, which is 85% owned by the French state.

BBC reports that EDF and the French government have a huge stake in the plant getting the go-ahead, as it will further their international nuclear ambitions.

As well as this, EDF has seen its revenues tumble in recent years. While the project will cost £18 billion upfront, a complex subsidy which will cost UK taxpayers billions (more on that later) will see it get around 10% back on top of its investment.

The company finally managed to sort out its financing woes last October by bringing onboard the China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN) which is providing one third of the cost of the project (in order to get a foothold in the UK).

It was all going according to plan, until the government decided to stall on signing off the project, throwing it once again up in the air.

So, why are Irish people against the plant?

Let’s not forget Sellafield.

Ireland has a history with not being the biggest fan of UK nuclear power plants and projects.

The government and anti-nuclear activists were long-engaged in a battle with the UK over the Sellafield nuclear site, located on the Cumbrian coast 180km from Ireland’s coast.

Nuclear workers organ removal report Sellafield nuclear plant. Source: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

There have been numerous worries over the effect the nuclear plant is having on the Irish Sea, as well as fears over what would happen should an incident break out at the site.

The Department of the Environment has even released a comprehensive expert document on the risks to Ireland from the Sellafield site (it found that there would be no observable health issues in Ireland even in the most extreme of incidents at the site).

Nuclear power has long been a flashpoint for heated debate, and Ireland has a history of opposing plants being built here (however, since 2012 some of our power does come from nuclear sources in Britain).

The Green Party is vocally opposed to nuclear power, preferring instead to opt for renewable forms of energy.

Sinn Féin has also voiced its opposition to the proposed plant. Commenting on Thursday, foreign affairs spokesperson Seán Crowe that the plant was “unwelcome and unwanted” by the Irish people.

“The expected news that the Hinkley Point, Somerset nuclear plant is set for final approval by the British government is unwelcome and adds another danger to people living in Ireland,” he said.

2/2/2013. 1913 Lockout Celebrations Sean Crowe. Source: Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland

Sinn Féin TDs have contended that in increase of birth defects in the north east of Ireland could be linked to the plant, but this has never been proven.

Irish renewable energy firms are also strongly opposed to the plans. Solar energy provider Solar 21 said Ireland would “suffer from any potential disaster that befalls it”.

“With parts of Ireland being closer to the site than many areas of the UK. This raises concerns surrounding the disposal of waste too, along with the potential for an accident that could hurt the Irish environment,” said CEO Michael Bradley.

Rounding off the opposition, An Táisce, the body overseeing Ireland’s heritage, took a legal challenge in 2013 against the UK government for granting permission to build the site without consulting the people of Ireland.

An Táisce contended that as the plant could have a significant environmental impact on Ireland, Irish people should be consulted. An English court ruled against An Táisce in this regard and it also lost a subsequent appeal.

Will the plant go ahead?

Whatever happens, it doesn’t seem as though any Irish objections will halt the development of the nuclear power plant, but opposition is also very strong across the water.

UK environmental groups vehemently oppose the plant, seeing nuclear energy as outdated and harmful the earth in the long run (and also possessing the potential to create a nuclear disaster).

Shut Sellafield Campaigns Children protesting outside the British Embassy in Ireland over Sellafield in 2000. Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

The pros of nuclear energy is that it emits much fewer greenhouse gasses than traditional forms, so governments see it as a way to reach reduced emission targets in the coming years.

As well as this, the plant will provide 25,000 jobs and the finished plant will employ 900 people

However, as we talked about above, the British taxpayer will have to foot the payback for the bill of building the plant in the first place, a situation that’s not proving very popular over there.

EDF’s contract requires a minimum “strike price” £92.5 per MWH for electricity generated by the plant. If the cost of power is lower than this by the time the plant is built (which it almost certainly will be) then consumers will have to foot the bill.

However, opponents of the plant may have a strong ally in current UK prime minister Theresa May. The Guardian reports that she raised objections to the current deal, apparently disagreeing with the over-enthusiasm for Chinese investment.

After so many false starts, the plans for building Hinkley Point C are once again up in the air.

Read: A new nuclear power station will be built 250 km from the Irish coast

Read: 30 years on: The impact of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster

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Cormac Fitzgerald

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