Long Read: Sizewell C is a nuclear disaster waiting to happen

By Rory Bathgate

25 January 2021

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of InQuire Media

Image courtesy of Tarini Tiwari

We came close to having a nuclear disaster on the East Coast of England.

I was born in Suffolk, and have lived here all my life. Both Sizewell A and Sizewell B were opened before I was alive, in 1966 and 1995 respectively and so have, for me, always been part of the coastline. Most consider them blots on the landscape; otherwise serene walks along the coast at Thorpeness are marred by the ominous white dome that is Sizewell B.

Sizewell A, an unassuming grey facility, was decommissioned in 2006. Just seven days later, an on-site contractor discovered a water leak that was traced to one of the pools that stores spent nuclear fuel, aka nuclear waste; an estimated 40,000 gallons of irradiated water had emptied, partly into the North Sea. If the leak had not been discovered, the time between the decommissioning and the site’s next scheduled inspection would have allowed for the tank to empty completely, exposing the spent rods to the air and allowing them to ignite. In other words, if not for the chance discovery of a contractor, there would have been a nuclear disaster on the East Coast. Very few people know this, not least in Suffolk. Such shocking incompetence, sadly, is forever destined for nuclear power: unlike any other means of energy production, it requires constant maintenance to ensure that spent fuel rods are stored safely.

In 1956, when Calder Hall opened in the UK and the world watched as we joined ranks with the USA and USSR to harness the atom, the UK government promised to look into disposal solutions for spent waste. Several reprocessing plants were created, Windscale, in particular, was used to both generate power and plutonium for the UK nuclear weapons program. Beside forging tools of mass murder, however, no government since has come up with a satisfactory solution to the problem of spent fuel. The fact is that the best bet science has for it is to bury it. And wait for a better idea. This is simply not an industry we can morally, financially, or logistically support any longer than we have to.

In the Energy White Paper published 14 December, the Government stated that “electricity could provide more than half of final energy demand in 2050, up from 17 per cent in 2019.” This is to be expected, and indeed we should be relying far more on electric solutions, particularly in the automotive, shipping and heating sectors rather than funnelling astronomical sums into even more nuclear power. This summer, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) revealed findings that the costs of solar and wind power generation were around 30% lower than previously estimated, as a result of advances and increased experience in the sector.

What if, instead of forking out £20bn on just one power station (EDF Energy’s pricing for Sizewell C), the Government invested in power that was not only half as cheap as its gas alternative, but would also stimulate employment? £20bn is also, frankly, a conservative estimate; no nuclear project of this scale has ever been finished on budget or on time, and EDF is poised to offload additional costs onto customers through their energy bills.

By 2030, Sizewell B is set to be the only functioning nuclear power plant in the UK, with the exception of Hinkley Point C (currently under construction). We must not invest in another set of nuclear power obligations and tie another century’s worth of governments and skilled labourers to such long-term projects. Even if no more nuclear power stations were built, there will never again be a UK Government who is not tasked with keeping the waste we have already produced safely buried. It is the skeleton in the closet that will outlive us all.

Nuclear power is, of course, necessary in order to pick up the slack created in the shift from fossil fuels to purely renewable sources. The Government acknowledges this, but where they fail is in their belief that it will be necessary long after their 2050 deadline for net-zero energy production. Sizewell C aims for a 2090-95 decommissioning date. Why humour nuclear power that long? Worldwide, we have already produced enough nuclear waste to kill all life on Earth a thousand times over, so why not end the cycle with the deadline we set for ourselves with the last batch of stations, and push for net-zero energy in 2030? This is the same deadline that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) urges world governments to meet in order to prevent total environmental catastrophe.

The group Together Against Sizewell C states that Sizewell B has already produced over 500 tonnes of spent fuel, stored in the ‘dry storage site’ which was brought into use in 2017 after the capacity of the spent fuel pools (in which waste is stored in tanks) was reached. The products within this fuel, such as plutonium-239, have half-lives of around 24,000 years; in that much time, their radioactivity will only have halved. Storage is a nightmarish, Sisyphean task in which the funding and construction of suitable tanks is constantly outmatched by the speed at which waste is produced.

Beyond this, Network Rail are in talks to accommodate the chaos of new nuclear transport trains, which would run five times a day, six days per week across the existing line impacting schedules and generating excess noise. Suffolk Wildlife Trust CEO Christine Luxton stated “an area of the coast the size of 900 football pitches will be directly affected by the development.” This is a lose-lose for Suffolk, and proves that the Tory promise of more eco-friendly policies is nothing but a smokescreen for cynical, environmentally destructive industry. How better can this be represented than in their plan to cover 10 football pitches of marshes, designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its rare and varied species, in concrete? Additional houses, roads, and wider infrastructure will also have to be constructed to support the site.

EDF and the Government argue that the economic benefits of Sizewell C will be great, with the need for increased workforce in the area generating £2 million per year from worker accommodation. The organisation Stop Sizewell C, however, states that EDF’s own studies suggest that the Suffolk coastal area can expect “a net 16% loss in visitors” as a direct impact of Sizewell C, a reduction greater than the already substantial loss of £24-40 million per year predicted by the Debt Management Office (DMO).

The cost of transferring to 100% renewable energy, though large, is guaranteed to be inconsequential when compared to the trillions of pounds and countless lives that will be lost to climate disaster. The 2011 Fukushima accident served as a reminder that nuclear energy is intrinsically linked to the climate; mass flooding, forecast to swallow up the UK coastline in the near future as sea levels rise, opens the very real risk of containment breaches at any fuel storage facilities.

We simply cannot accept plans that could make Britain the site of the next nuclear catastrophe. The Government is cursing five more generations with the poisoned responsibility of nuclear fission, and Sizewell C is instrumental in this destructive quest.