By Paul Brown / Climate News NetworkThis Creative Commons-licensed piece first appeared at Climate News Network.

LONDON — The future of the nuclear industry in Europe took another blow this week when the French state-owned power company EDF again postponed a final decision on whether to build two large nuclear power stations in the UK. Construction will now not start before 2019, the company said.

This is the eighth time a “final investment decision” on building two European Pressurised Water Reactors (EPRs) has been postponed because the company has still to secure enough backing to finance the £18 billion (€23.26 bn) project.

The excuse this time was that the Chinese New Year celebrations had held up negotiations with the Chinese backers, who have agreed to put up one-third of the money.

Preparation of the site at Hinkley Point in the west of England was stopped last year while EDF sought partners for the project. Each time there has been a postponement the company has issued a statement saying it remains “fully committed” to building two 1,650 MW reactors (1 MW is enough to power 750-1,000 average US homes).

Decision close

This week was no different. “We have the intention to proceed rapidly with the investment decision for Hinkley Point,” EDF’s chief executive Jean-Bernard Levy told reporters. Adding that EDF had not yet finalised talks with its Chinese partners, he said: “Today we estimate this final decision is very close.”

Levy said it would take about three years, possibly a bit more, of study and work with sub-contractors before EDF will begin building the first permanent structures on the Hinkley Point C site, though it will do preparatory work between now and then.

“Definitive construction of what will be built on the site, what we call the first concrete, is on the horizon for 2019,” Levy said.

This date is a year after the reactors were originally due to be completed. The timetable has gradually slipped backwards. Last year the date for power to start being generated was put back to 2025, but this new date for pouring concrete makes 2030 more likely — if the reactors are built at all.

Problematic record

The new proposed start date of 2019 is very significant for reasons the company dare not spell out. This is because there is no evidence yet that these so-called Evolutionary Power Reactors will operate effectively. Four are under construction, but are years behind schedule, and costs have tripled. In Europe their earliest proposed start date is 2018 — so it looks as though EDF is being careful not to begin building another one until it can prove the design actually works.

The EPRs are “third generation European Pressurised Water Reactors” — the largest nuclear plants in the world. They have a chequered history, even before any has actually produced a single watt of electricity. Construction of the first prototype began in 2005 in Finland: expected to be finished in 2009, it is still under construction.

The same is true of the second, at Flamanville in France, where construction began in 2007. It has also hit delays and cost over-runs of staggering proportions. It too is due to start in  2018.

The other two EPRs are being built in China. Both should have been in operation by this year, but both also have undergone unspecified delays.

Safety question

The biggest problem for EDF, which owns and is building the Flamanville reactor, is that there are safety issues over the strength of the steel used to build the pressure vessel. It contained too much carbon and is undergoing stress testing to see if it is safe. While the outcome of these tests remains unknown, a question mark hangs over the stations future.

This, plus the vast amount of remedial safety work required by the French safety regulators from EDF on its fleet of 58 ageing reactors in France itself, has put the company under severe financial strain. It needs to find €100 bn for repairs, and to improve safety following the Fukushima disaster in Japan, to keep the plants operating until 2030.

As a result of fears that the company might overstretch itself and jeopardise jobs in France the six trade union representatives on EDF’s board have expressed opposition to the company going ahead with building reactors on British soil.

Unfilled gap

This further postponement of a start date for the new reactors leaves the UK government with a gaping hole in its energy policy, despite it offering to pay double the existing price of electricity for the output from Hinkley Point, a subsidy that will continue for 35 years.

The Conservative government has been relying on nuclear energy to replace fossil fuels from 2025, when it plans to phase out all its coal stations. Some renewable energy subsidies have been scrapped to make way for new nuclear stations.

In all, the Conservative government wants ten new nuclear stations in the UK — four EPRs and the rest from Japan and the US. None of these now seems likely to be built before 2030, if at all.

Perhaps to divert attention from the postponement of the new reactors, EDF announced that it was going to extend the life of four of the nuclear power stations it already operates in Britain. It bought eight ageing stations of British design in 2009 for £12.5 billion.

Longer lives

Some were already due to close in 2018 but have had their lives extended. Now another four will be kept open to bridge the gap left by the failure to build the new stations at Hinkley Point.

These are the Heysham 1 plant in northwest England and another at Hartlepool in the northeast, both of which had been due to be switched off in 2019 because of their advanced age. They will be allowed to keep producing electricity for another five years.

Two other reactors, Heysham 2 and Torness in Scotland, have been granted extensions of seven years to 2030. There is no reason — as long as the stations are deemed safe – why further life extensions should not be applied for, and granted.

Continuing to apply for life extensions for old nuclear stations also saves the company from technical bankruptcy. Once a station is closed its decommissioning costs become company liabilities. With the company’s debts already high, it would not take many closures for EDF’s liabilities to exceed its assets.

Paul Brown, a founding editor of Climate News Network, is a former environment correspondent of The Guardian newspaper, and still writes columns for the paper.

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