England & Wales Climate action and sustainable development, Economy and regeneration

Somerset leader seeks third nuclear reactor

Ken Maddock is a pragmatist. The leader of the Conservative-led Somerset County Council moved swiftly last autumn to rubber-stamp £43m of cuts to Somerset’s budget two months before the government had released any figures, prompting criticism that he was perhaps being too hasty.

But Somerset has suffered in the recession and he believes that making cuts fast and getting it over with quickly will create the right conditions sooner for business in the county to flourish. He is also pinning his hopes on the construction of a third nuclear reactor at Hinkley, which would create thousands of jobs.

Ken, who comes from a business background, was elected as a county councillor in 2001, after several years on Mendip District Council. He became leader of the council in 2009 when the Conservatives won control after 16 years of Lib Dem rule.

He says: “In 2017 we will start to run short of electricity. Of course we have to go for low carbon energy, such as tidal, wind, photovoltaic and solar, but nuclear is likely to provide the largest contribution – so long as it is safe.

“Somerset’s nuclear programme is potentially the biggest project in Europe, bigger even than the 2012 Olympic Games. The construction will require £10bn and that’s just Hinkley. If all 10 projects go ahead across the UK, that’s £100bn of totally private funding being invested – no public money at all.

”Ken continues: “The main lesson from Fukishima is that safety is always number one. It is the deal-breaker of all deal-breakers. The Fukishima technology is different to what is proposed here, but we can’t be complacent.

“The government was absolutely right to call for an immediate assessment of what happened in Japan and any lessons we might need to learn in the UK. A short delay is fairly inevitable while the UK’s chief nuclear officer Dr Mike Weightman makes an assessment. He is due to make a final, comprehensive report in four months’ time, but we can continue to progress in the meantime.”

Hinkley Point, on the Somerset coast near Bridgwater, has been home to first Hinkley A (which was shut in 2000) and then Hinkley B, which is due to be decommissioned in 2016. EDF Energy is the potential developer for Hinkley Point C.

Ken says: “EDF has lots of experience. I went to visit one of its power stations in France, as a member of the public, so I’ve seen what it looks like. It’s positioned in a dip near Cherbourg, so that it is not visible by the public, whereas you can see Hinkley for miles. I’ve seen the impact it will have and it will need careful management.

“Although nothing has been approved yet, EDF has acquired the land and has done a lot of work, adapting many of the proposals as a result of consultations. It is sensitive to the electorate and is talking to people locally.”

Under the Planning Act 2008, planning applications for major infrastructure projects such as this can be fast-tracked via the Infrastructure Planning Commission or, once this has been disbanded, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Chris Huhne. Developers and communities are encouraged to get together to shape the application before it is put in.

Ken, who has lived with his wife and two sons in Baltonsborough for 23 years, says there are lots of local issues for consideration: “First of all, there has to be a transport plan. Aggregate could be needed from local quarries, for example. In order to avoid traffic congestion and disruption to Bridgwater and the surrounding areas such as Cannington there’s a proposal to float large pieces of the infrastructure by sea, so they will need to build a 500m jetty.

“It’s going to take six years to build, with a temporary workforce of up to 6,000 people. Where do we house them? Low-cost housing? Temporary housing? Or by dispersing workers through the community? We don’t want a gold rush town situation, where everyone rushes in and then rushes out again.“We are also trying to maximise local jobs, recruitment from within the local community.More than 1,000 people could be permanently employed at the completed plant.”

Bridgwater College is home to the National Skills Academy Nuclear, running training courses in everything from construction and engineering to NVQs in radiation protection. EDF Energy has been working with the college and the council to train local people into high-grade jobs with better wages.

He continues: “There could be a knock-on effect on tourism, if the B&Bs are all full of workers. Some tourists might be put off by the power station, but equally a nuclear visitor centre could attract more tourism.

“Then there are environmental concerns and we need to consider all the risks. For example, the site would be using water from the estuary as a coolant, which means that when the water is pumped back out again it will be warmer, raising the temperature of the estuary. What effects will that have on the fish and wildlife? Plus there are noise and light pollution issues.”

One particular cause for local concern is the proposal to connect Hinkley to the National Grid in Avonmouth with pylons stretching for 37 miles through the Mendip Hills. A vociferous campaign last year led to an agreement for further consultation time.

Ken says: “I have a strong wish to find a way to make this work, but it has to be acceptable for local people and good for the county.”

Ken is very aware of the need to present a united local voice over Hinkley. He says: “The County Council is working closely with West Somerset and Sedgemoor District Councils to improve our bargaining position and influence – because EDF is a mammoth company.”

This led him to think about the wider picture. “There are nine other authorities potentially going through the same experience, so I got in touch with them and said, ‘Shall we act together, as we will all face the same challenges?’”

Thus the New Nuclear Authority Group was formed last year, with the idea of sharing experience and best practice. Ken Maddock is the chair. “It means that I can go to ministers with a powerful piece of paper, that I am talking on behalf of all authorities and it gives us more clout.

“A single local government view is more helpful,” he says. “Now is the time to address things at a local level. For instance, where is the skilled workforce going to come from? France? We need to train our own UK workforce to be skilled.”

It made sense therefore, for Ken Maddock to be invited to join the Nuclear Development Forum to represent local government, a body chaired by Chris Hune that was set up in 2008 to facilitate discussions between ministers, nuclear operators and potential investors about future expansion.

He says: “I go there to represent local government, to anticipate problems and feed back to all the members of the New Nuclear Authority Group.”

While the UK waits for Dr Weightman’s report, Ken Maddock is not letting the grass grow under his feet. He says: “I am currently getting together a proposal for a nuclear Local Enterprise Partnership, not geographical but issue-based, in order to persuade the government to help with infrastructure. The group would be formed of all the energy company representatives, local government representatives and national government representatives.

“We should be working towards creating a highly trained transferable workforce to work on the new power stations round the country, moving between sites as needed.”

This article was first published in C’llr Mag