When the European Competition Commission announced last year that the UK’s plans to fund Hinkley C’s construction amounted to an "illegal state subsidy", I truly thought that the project might be abandoned.
The plant – which would be the first new nuclear power plant in the UK for almost two decades – would be built through a partnership between the China Guangdong Nuclear Corporation and French state-owned EDF.
The commission’s findings were clear: plans to fix the price consumers would pay for nuclear electricity at twice the current rate – for 35 years – would give French energy giant EDF an unfair advantage over other power companies, force UK energy users to pay for EDF’s profits, and subsidise an environmentally hazardous industry when alternatives could actually be cheaper.
Last year when my closest colleague in the local campaign warned me to be cautious, I dismissed her fears that EU officials would eventually come to a deal with the UK government, which has staked its entire energy policy on the Hinkley C plan. In April, at a conference in Prague called "The Economics of Nuclear Power", I was re-assured by EU officials and energy experts that the European Commission would have no choice but to stand by its original findings. European Competition law, which has been agreed between all EU states, forbids unecessary subsidies and is there specifically to protect consumers against artificial fixed-price deals, especially when, as in the case of EDF’s Hinkley C plans, the project has not even been put out to tender.
So it was with some dismay that we heard recently that the outgoing EU commissioner, Joaquín Almunia, had leaked his revised decision to approve the £24 billion project and clear the way for the plant to be built.
Weeks of frantic lobbying by NGOs, local campaigners, Euro MPs and consumers failed to halt the dramatic reversal, even though, unusually, a third of commissioners disagreed with the decision. Financial commentators were as shocked by the outcome as environmentalists, clearly some kind of political deal had been cooked up between the UK and the EU behind closed doors.
The decision tears up EU competition law and opens the way for similar nuclear subsidies across Europe. This is essential to an industry which cannot cover its own construction costs, let alone the risks of accidents and the future management of waste, without bottomless support from the public purse.
So why are opponents of Hinkley C still upbeat about their campaign? Experience has shown me that public awareness usually lags behind official processes. Hinkley C has ploughed through various procedural hurdles with scant regard for democratic or legal rectitude. But as people have heard about the Commission’s decision, a wave of outrage has started to grow.
The Austrian government, which has staked its fight against climate change on the renewable energy revolution, has promised to mount a legal challenge to the commission. This week, solar and wind-power companies in Britain have threatened to join them. They will have massive popular support from citizens already facing rising prices and disillusioned with a political system rigged in favour of investors and corporations against the interests of working people.
It remains to be seen whether legal challenges halt the project. My faith in the ability of our legal system to protect the environment and the people has been shaken in recent years. But such a legal challenge will buy us time, and time, I believe, is all we need. If EDF has to delay its final investment decision for yet another year, the readiness of Chinese investors to gamble on the project may recede. Current experience with EDF’s new nuclear plants in Finland and France is showing that, even if construction of Hinkley C eventually begins, the project will take much longer and cost much more to complete than originally envisaged.
In the meantime, safer and cleaner renewable technologies like solar, wind and tidal power will continue to fall in price, strengthening the argument for a future UK administration to abandon this costly and dangerous 20th century technology.
So we will continue our campaigning and awareness raising, confident in the belief that the people will eventually reclaim the political process, that investors will never recoup their profits at our expense and that the Hinkley C building site will eventually be abandoned as a monument to the folly of outdated and unsustainable thinking.