Technology of course moves on, changes and improves. So our assessments must also change. Anyone now conducting a fresh and open minded assessment of the objective evidence of the total real costs and the total real risks associated with modern nuclear energy projects compared to the alternatives would have to admit that there has been a significant shift in the equations. Large nuclear projects now look even less viable.
A nuclear power station takes a very long time to build and a great deal of money is required up front. With projects of that scale it is very easy for predictions about price and need to go very badly wrong. Even small building projects are notorious for running over budget and getting out of control. Large ones are even harder to control. The economic and the safety risks of building a large new nuclear facility are therefore huge.
So it should be no surprise to anyone that Westinghouse in the US has recently gone bankrupt as a direct result of trying to manage an unwieldy nuclear project. The numbers involved should however be enough to shock anyone. They stagger the imagination.
The Toshiba parent company has announced an annual loss of $9,200,000,000 in one single financial year. There is more to come. They don't know how much more. Even in today's world of telephone number financial crises a loss of $9.2 billion which is still going up is horrific by anyone's standards.
Building four nuclear power stations in the US - or rather failing to build them on time and to budget - has been sufficient to bring one of the biggest companies in the world to its knees. Toshiba may survive but it will have to sell off almost all of its best assets in order to do so.
Ask yourself these questions. After this horrific disaster, if you were the chief executive of a major international company would you recommend to your board that they should bid to deliver a new nuclear power station? If you were the shareholders would you vote for it? So why would the citizens of the UK allow their government to bet the bank on supplying us with energy via an even larger and more unpredictable nuclear project than the ones that are sinking Toshiba?
The UK is currently trying to get a £18 billion new nuclear power plant built at Hinkley Point. The plan is that there will be no drift upwards in this price. Instead Chinese state finance and French commercial expertise will seamlessly link up with far sighted British government planning to ensure the project will deliver 7% of UK electricity in 2025. What could possibly go wrong?
Even more bizarrely the whole project relies on a prediction of what the price of energy will be - not just in 2025, but for 35 years afterwards. If you asked a series of economic experts for a prediction on the price of energy in 2060 you would get a huge range of answers because that is an incredibly hard thing to do. Demand and supply fluctuate and so does price. Yet if the price of electricity stays where it currently is, well below the contractual price of £92.50 per megawatt hour, then the consumer is going to be very badly ripped off.
So let's weigh up the alternatives. We can invest the future of this country in a vanity nuclear project. Economically this risks massive cost over-runs, construction delays and financial failure on the scale that dwarfs the Toshiba experience. Safety wise it involves building a nuclear plant on flat land next to the sea at a time of rising sea levels without any idea of how we will dispose of the waste. A low likelihood of risk but one accompanied by an extremely high impact. As a reward for this risk taking we pay too much for electricity for 35 years.
The alternative to this vast unwieldy vanity project would be much more localised and small scale. We could get the same, and indeed a much greater, impact on our energy demand and supply by the following measures a lot more cheaply, a lot more reliably, a lot quicker and a lot safer.
* provide better incentives to insulate homes and reduce energy consumption in office blocks and industrial processes
* improve supply incentives for renewables
* invest in greater storage capacity to deal with the greater variation of renewables
* invest in science and technology research to ensure the UK leads in the next phase of smaller scale more localised energy technology
* provide easier access to start up finance and to expertise for small and medium sized companies to help them turn cutting edge technology into products that are made in the UK and sold across the world.
Technology has reached the stage where it is increasingly easy to produce energy and to store it close to the places where it is needed. In those circumstances what is the wise investment bet for a nation that wants to be proudly at the forefront of the latest developments? After the experience of Toshiba where do you think the best interests of UK lie?
Do we bet the economy on a clumsy vanity project when we are staring the evidence in the face of how badly that can go wrong? Or do we invest in the science, technology and business skills of genuinely modern energy? Great unwieldy government projects or small and medium companies that are fleet of foot and capable of quickly adopting and adapting to the latest technology. Not a hard choice I would have thought.
Let's pull out of Hinkley Point and change track now before we are left holding the losses instead of healthy new businesses.