Plans to Build World’s Largest Nuclear Plant on Hold
The decision was announced hours after a bruising meeting of the board of the giant French energy company EDF, at which directors decided by 10 votes to seven to go ahead with the building of two 1,600 megawatt reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset, southwest England.
A computer-generated image of what the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant would look like. EDF Energy / PA
One director, Gerard Magnin, had already resigned in protest before the meeting, saying the project was "very risky." All six union members, who are worker directors, said they were going to vote against because they believed that any new investment should be directed at making ageing French reactors safer.
So certain were EDF that a signing ceremony with the British government would take place today to provide the company with 35 years of subsidies for their electricity that they had hired marquees, invited the world's press and laid in stocks of champagne to toast the agreement.
But EDF Chief Executive Vincent de Rivaz, who had pushed for the deal, cancelled a trip to Britain on hearing the government announcement.
Britain's new prime minister, Theresa May, who had never publicly endorsed the project like her predecessor David Cameron, has clearly heeded the myriad voices outside the nuclear industry that say this is a bad deal for British consumers.
Her new business and energy secretary, Greg Clark, in a brief statement, said the decision was deferred until "early autumn" while the "government reviews all the component parts of the agreement" to build what is the most expensive power plant the world has ever seen.
Hinkley Point C, as the new station would have been called, is estimated by the company to cost £18 billion, take nine years to build and provide 7 percent of the UK's electricity via two 1,600 megawatt reactors.
This is a new type of reactor, of which four are being built—one at Olkiluoto in Finland, one at Flamanville in France and two in China. All are years behind schedule and costs in France and Finland have trebled. None are expected to produce power until 2018, although what is happening in China is not clear.
Because of these delays, the French were not actually going to start pouring concrete for construction until 2019 and there were already severe doubts that the timetable proposed by the French for Hinkley Point could be met.
Some have even suggested that the delays elsewhere have shown that the design is flawed and that the reactors may never work efficiently. This may concern the British government, but the sticking point is more likely to be the staggeringly high cost that consumers will have to pay for electricity produced by the plants.
Up in the air: the controversial Hinkley Point project has been the focus of many past protests.Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament via Flickr
In 2012, the previous government agreed to pay £92.50 for each megawatt hour of electricity produced—a price that would rise with inflation.
With wholesale prices going down, that is already three times the current price of electricity and it is calculated that it would cost every bill payer in Britain £10 a year for 35 years just to keep the station open—and it could be more.
If Theresa May is anything like her predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, who did not think nuclear power was value for money, the project will be in jeopardy.
EDF already runs 15 ageing nuclear reactors in Britain and was looking to build the two at Hinkley and another two in Essex to replace the old ones as they close down. The Chinese, Japanese and Americans were being encouraged to build reactors in other parts of England and Wales. All these look less likely now.
The problem for nuclear power is that new stations cost billions to build and take a decade before they get any income back. This has brought EDF huge debts and borrowings, which has put the company in financial difficulty—hence the internal controversy about the Hinkley decision.
Claire Jacobson, head of climate, energy and environment policy at EEF, the British manufacturers' lobby group that supports the nuclear industry, said the government's decision was "yet another blow to a decision that has been hindered by many delays and uncertainties."
Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the Nuclear Industries Association, warned that failure to go ahead with the project would risk the lights going out and missing the country's carbon emissions reduction targets. He said ministers "need to act quickly to endorse the decision [to go ahead]."
However, critics of the controversial project were delighted. John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace, said: "Theresa May now has the chance to stop this radioactive white elephant in its tracks."
"She should look at the evidence and see that this deal would be a monumental disaster for the taxpayers and the bill payers. Countless experts have warned that for British families this power station will be terrible value for money, Sauven added."
Until last night, the UK was the most positive country in Europe about nuclear power and planned to build a total of 10 nuclear power plants, Hinkley Point being the first of them. This was despite the fact that nuclear costs continue to escalate while its main competitors—renewables of all kinds—fall in price.
The Hinkley Point project is now more expensive than offshore wind power, which is the most expensive renewable and is far more costly than solar and onshore wind. Biogas and small-scale hydro projects in Britain, all so far underdeveloped, are also cheaper than nuclear.
The price of all renewables is going down as they develop, while the price rises for nuclear power, with safety fears and threats from terrorism pushing costs up.
It is also argued, even by the UK's national electricity grid, that the day of the large power plant is over, to be replaced by small local generators providing electricity near to homes and factories—something that renewables are ideally suited for.
Even France, which has 58 reactors and is building a Hinkley prototype at Flamanville in Normandy, has no plans to build any more. All its new energy projects are renewables and it has plentiful supplies of untapped wind and solar power, which are cheaper.
China, which is currently building more nuclear plants that any other country, is also hoping to build new plants in Britain, and China General Nuclear Power had agreed to fund one-third of the Hinkley Point project to get an entry to the UK market.
They were due to be at the celebrations in Somerset today, but in a statement said: "We respect the new government's need to familiarize itself with a project as important to the UK's future energy policy as Hinkley Point C and we stand ready to help the government in this respect." They then flew home.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>