The 18-month row over the real cost of Hinkley Point C looks set to reach crunch time in London.
Multiple freedom of information requests have been denied by the information commissioner, preventing the publication of subsidy documents currently being held by the DECC (Department for Energy and Climate Change). However, the department have finally agreed to hold a hearing on the subject.
This news has arrived only a few days before Vincent de Rivaz, EDF’s chief executive in Britain, is due to be questioned by MPs over the £18bn cost of the project, which is set to be paid for by subsidies and customer bills.
The company behind the project, EDF, has yet to decide whether or not it will proceed with the scheme. Members of parliament have said that “serious questions” remain over whether or not the plan is viable. The finance director of EDF has quit over the financial impact that Hinkley will have on the heavily indebted firm. However, Francois Hollande and David Cameron have supported the project, claiming that it represents “a pillar of the bilateral relationship” and is “a key aspect of Britain’s energy policy”.
The conservative government has already reached a deal to pay £92.50 per megawatt hour for electricity produced by the plant- double the wholesale price at the time the agreement was made.
There are seven documents that Greenpeace and Request Initiative have been trying to get released since 2014; the documents are thought to contain more information about the subsidy plans for the project.
The documents were submitted to the European commission as the reason for the project to receive state aid.
The environmental group, Greenpeace, have said it is extremely strange that the information commissioner is choosing to withhold such important information from the public. They are hoping that the Information Tribunal will lead to progress being made when it takes place in London in May.
The policy director at Greenpeace, Doug Parr, said:
“Bizarrely, the Information Commissioner and DECC are hell bent on keeping the evidence showing Hinkley is a good idea for Britain a secret. The reports we have been trying to see for 18 months illustrate the assumptions that DECC used to decide that Hinkley is the best bet to power Britain in the future.
“We think it’s hard to think of any reason it should be kept secret unless the evidence shows that Hinkley isn’t such a good idea. The argument it has to remain a secret because it would damage the government’s negotiations is now over because the negotiations have finished.
“Today’s school leavers will be paying for Hinkley until they’re about to draw their pensions, the government should tell future generations what they are paying for and why.”
Brussels initially thought that the subsidies for the plans constituted unlawful support but this decision was reversed and the British government was given the go ahead.
Greenpeace asked the that the documents be made accessible and later made a request under the freedom of information act, which was denied by the DECC.
The decision was upheld by the information commissioner, saying that “the reports contain and discuss matters of a sensitive commercial nature and the information was provided to DECC in the expectation that it would be treated as confidential”.
It was also agreed that the release of the documents would “disadvantage the government in the context of future negotiations with other (nuclear plant) developers”.
The commissioner conceded that there is a high level of public interest in the release of the documents but said that this was outweighed by other factors surrounding their commercial sensitivity.
The commissioner has now accepted that an oral hearing is the “appropriate” response in this situation.
The information commissioner has said that he will not be commenting further on the issue ahead of the the hearing. The Department for Energy and Climate Change has defended its position to keep the documents undisclosed.
A spokesperson said:
“The decision to withhold these documents is due to commercial sensitivity in accordance with exceptions set out in the Environmental Information Regulations.
“The information commissioner supported this decision and we appreciate that this is now is the subject of a live appeal and we can’t comment any further whilst the appeal process is ongoing.”
EDF maintains that they are a company totally committed to openness about its business dealings, and they have said that this helps distance the nuclear sector from the secrecy that it has always been associated with.
De Rivaz said:
“At EDF Energy, transparency is at the heart of everything we do. It is our responsibility, as the custodians of Britain’s nuclear fleet, to be transparent, open and receptive to questions.
“We are approaching the Final Investment Decision for our new nuclear project Hinkley Point C. As we do, scrutiny has naturally increased. Just as we embrace transparency, we welcome scrutiny. We relish challenge based on facts.”