A flurry of new nuclear announcements last week combined to send out the clear message that the UK is finally set for such developments to actually get built.
But, almost fatefully, at the same time a less grandiose and very provincial issue raised its head and threatened to undermine the government and developers’ determination.
Late last month prime minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced a further “alliance” between the UK and France on nuclear energy. This has at its centre the plan for French energy giant EdF to continue investment to build up to four reactors at Hinkley Point C in Somerset and Sizewell B in Suffolk.
EdF then gave long awaited confi rmation that a joint venture between Bam and Kier had won the £100M earthworks contract at Hinkley — a contract that had been close to being signed for almost a year before. Bam and Kier were revealed as the frontrunners for the work by NCE in 2011, but Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster delayed things.
The clash between nationwide policy and localism was thrown into sharp focus when it emerged that Hinkley’s local authority, Sedgemoor District Council, had become locked in a dispute with EdF over funding for what it sees as vital work to appropriately scrutinise the energy company’s 30,000 page planning application.
The problem is clear: no-one wants to continue to funding the estimated £2M cost of the remaining workload — EdF has already provided £9.8M and refuses to top up the full amount — and without it the programme for the publication of the Infrastructure Planning Commission’s recommendation about whether the facility should be built could be scuppered.
Efforts to streamline the planning system look likely to be stymied by the same obstacles faced by infrastructure projects of national signifi cance for decades.
And there is little indication that it will ever be as simple as designating something to be in the national interest and therefore beyond reproach at a local level.
Recent political rhetoric surrounding localism is unlikely to help matters either. The UK seems set on a path of sometimes decades-long planning processes for its major schemes while the local and special interest groups are heard through the democratic process.
Our neighbours — places like France and Germany — somehow manage to remain democratic while swiftly negotiating compromises along the way to resolve more provincial issues.
In high speed rail development, for example, arguments against building railways through unspoilt countryside tend to be negotiated through environmental mitigation measures along with the offer of an intermediary station.
There are not always easy answers. But it seems that UK projects are mired in indecision about some of the smaller issues — whether a school sits too close to a construction shaft, or whether a tunnel should be lengthened by a kilometre or two to hide transport from the countryside — while the potentially insurmountable ethical and business case decisions are less debated.
The government’s commitment to new nuclear power stations is increasingly looking like a panic buy at the checkout — everyone knows that the lights going out could be a catastrophic eventuality and security of energy supply is in doubt. And so new nuclear is the saviour. But there is an elephant in the room — embarking on a new generation of nuclear power means generating an unthinkable and massive amount of nuclear waste.
And no one has yet finalised the answer to the existing problem of waste generated by our earlier nuclear power generators.
Yes, there are major, and understandably extremely expensive, operations underway at places like Dounreay to clear the sites of all varieties of such waste.
But even though there are plans for some spent fuel to be reprocessed, and sites to be cleared, there is no certainty about what to do with the remnants. Even plans to bury nuclear waste deep in underground repositories have still to be fully signed off.
It is easy to become distracted by the democratic process, but it is also unclear whether the politicians are being tested not just on the local issues but on the greater ones too.