The claimfactFiction41 Going nuclear: essential, or an over reaction?

“If people at home want to be able to keep watching the television, be able to turn the kettle on, and benefit from electricity, we have got to make these investments. It is essential to keep the lights on.”
Ed Davey, energy secretary, 21 October 2013

This morning, the government announced that it had struck a deal with the French company EDF to build Britain’s first new nuclear power station in 25 years.

The deal was to build two reactors at Hinkley Point C plant in Somerset which would provide “a stable source of clean power from 2023, generating enough electricity to power nearly 6 millions homes”, according to a government press release.

EDF Energy will lead a consortium including Chinese investors, with an investment of around £16bn. The China General Nuclear Power Group and China National Nuclear Corporation will be minority investors. Ministers have agreed a price of £92.50 per megawatt hour at the plant when it comes into operation.

The Energy Secretary Ed Davey hailed it as a “historic day”. Due to the French investment, he said, “for the first time, a nuclear station in this country will not have been built with money from the British taxpayer.”

Essential to stop us from from having no power, though? FactCheck wonders whether we’re being kept in the dark on this.

The analysis

It’s worth pointing out that it’s rather odd for the Lib Dem energy secretary to take this position. In their election manifesto, they said the party would would “reject a new generation of nuclear power stations. Based on the evidence nuclear is a far more expensive way of reducing carbon emissions than promoting energy conservation and renewable energy.”

He didn’t mention the manifesto this morning, though. At a press conference, he said that anyone who thought the power generated by Hinkley C could be generated by wind turbines was “brave”.

As to his point that Hinkley C is the only way to keep the lights switched on – we’re not sure why the energy secretary says this.

According to Ofgem, which regulates the electricity and gas markets, the lights weren’t about to go out anyway.

In a report published in June this year, Ofgem said that the energy capacity was due to hit its low in two or three years, and after that, things would get better.

Capacity margins could fall to between two to five per cent in 2015-16 – when they would “bottom out”. After that, Ofgem said, margins would begin to rise again, due to an increase in onshore and offshore wind generation, onshore.

It’s also the case that according to the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s own assessments, demand for electricity has been falling.

Household electricity consumption has fallen by 11 per cent since 2005, and gas by 20 per cent since then. That’s due to improvements in home insulation efficiency, better gadgets such as televisions and electrical goods which use less electricity, and the recent economic climate.

In other words, based on current trends, Hinkley is on schedule to begin operating when things are already on the up.

The DECC report even said that innovations, for example more efficient boilers, home improvements enforced through tightened up building regulations, smart meters, and the government’s Green Deal, were expected to save households around 11 per cent – £166 – on their energy bills by 2020.

In fact, when we asked Dr Paul Dorfman of the UCL Energy Institute what he made of what Mr Davey said, he said: “We would have to have a decade of huge growth to get back to the electricity demand of 2008.”

The verdict

Based on what the regulator and the government have said, there hasn’t been evidence to suggest the lights are about to go out.

We realise Mr Davey is speaking metaphorically – the National Grid would have to step in and introduce measures to prevent us all from sitting in the dark if we really were at that point.

But it does strike us as odd that the plant wasn’t scheduled to be built before 2015-16 when we are likely to see the biggest squeeze.

So we asked the Department for Energy and Climate Change what Mr Davey meant by what he said.

A spokeswoman said: “He was just making the point of how important it [nuclear] is. He wasn’t affirmatively saying that if Hinkley wasn’t built, the lights would be switched off.”

We also asked for a detailed explanation and breakdown of how the government had concluded that a new nuclear fleet would cut bills by £77 by 2030. The claim was repeated a number of times, and we asked repeatedly how it was arrived at. Another academic, Professor Steve Thomas, of the University of Greenwich, told us: “The idea that we can know what the electricity supply will be in 17 years is laughable.”

We were sent several reports of models and analysis, but no one was prepared to actually sit and show us some sums, saying simply that it was “complicated” and would be presented in due course.

In other words, even DECC couldn’t shed any light on the matter, nuclear or not.

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