Ministers were today warned that pulling the plug on the proposed Sizewell Cnuclear power plant in Suffolk would deal a potentially fatal blow to the UK’s hopes of achieving its net-zero carbon commitments.
It is understood that the £30bn project – which was expected to provide up to 7 per cent of the UK’s electricity needs – could be delayed or scrapped as part of Rishi Sunak’s bid to fill a £50bn hole in the government’s finances.
Despite pleas from the CBI not to slash capital spending in chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s 17 November Autumn Statement, a senior Treasury source stressed they were rethinking “all capital spending”.
And a separate government official told the BBC: “We are reviewing every major project – including Sizewell C.”
It came as business secretary Grant Shapps confirmed that the Northern Powerhouse Rail project to link Liverpool to Hull with new high-speed tracks, with a stop at Bradford, had fallen victim to the government’s belt-tightening.
The scheme was briefly resurrected by Liz Truss as prime minister, after Boris Johnson scaled it back dramatically to an upgrade of existing lines, with no Bradford stop.
But Mr Shapps made clear that the new government was reverting to Johnson’s plan, telling the BBC: “The line itself can deliver a 33-minute journey from Manchester to Leeds, quadruple nearly the capacity of that line, and do so without having to wait an extra 20 years beyond the delivery of what the upgrade can do.
“There wasn’t really much point in going and blasting new tunnels through the Pennines.”
Confusion surrounded the nuclear project’s fate, with sources in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy insisting it was not being scrapped or delayed.
And a government spokesperson said Mr Sunak’s administration was still “seeking to approve at least one large-scale nuclear project in the next few years”.
Former Bank of England governor Mark Carney warned that cancelling Sizewell would blow a hole in the government’s legally-binding target to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Mr Carney, who is financial adviser to the UK’s presidency of the COP26 climate change talks, told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “Let’s put it this way. If they’re not going to finance a new nuclear power plant, they have to answer what else they’re going to do for zero-emission so-called baseload energy, to meet the needs of the UK economy in the future.”
The national secretary of the GMB union, Andy Prendergast said any decision to pull support from Sizewell would be “catastrophic”.
“We really could see the UK’s lights go ou,” he said. “Without new nuclear there can be no net zero.”
Mr Prendergast said that the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant in Somerset had already been “pointlessly delayed” by a review ordered by Theresa May.
“There’s a risk we do the same again,” he said. “Questioning Sizewell’s funding at this point makes the UK a laughing stock once again – it puts our energy supply in jeopardy and risks the 22,000 jobs Sizewell would create. “Having already crashed the economy, they seem hell-bent on crashing our energy supply. “The very real prospect of long term power cuts underlines their total incompetence and disregard for the UK’s future.’”
Sue Ferns of the Prospect union said: “Given the energy crisis we are facing this winter, which is in part caused by a long-term failure to plan and provide for our energy needs, it would be a national disaster to add further delay and uncertainty to Sizewell C.
“It is unacceptable to sacrifice such an important national project due to a financial crisis of the government’s own making.
“New nuclear power is the only proven technology which can deliver on the need to reach net zero and secure our energy supply.”
However, the Stop Sizewell C campaign welcomed doubts over the project’s future.
“The chancellor has said that eye-wateringly difficult decisions are needed so it’s right that eye-watering expensive projects go under the microscope,” said the group in a statement.
“Sizewell C can only offer short term pain – with more money on our energy bills – for long term pain, with huge uncertainty about cost and time, to deliver electricity that is far more expensive than renewables.
“There is no way Sizewell C offers the hard-stretched public purse value for money. Rishi Sunak and Jeremy Hunt should invest in a major energy efficiency drive that would create many thousands of green jobs, and within a very few years deliver real savings on household bills instead of increasing them through the nuclear stealth tax.”