Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Even magic money tree is growing too slowly to fund new nuclear

Letter sent to  The Guardian:
Both your energy editor (“EDF admits Hinkley is £1.5bn over budget," https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jul/03/hinkley-point-c-is-22bn-over-budget-and-a-year-behind-schedule-edf-admits) and financial commentator Nils Pratley (“EDF’s nuclear option,” https://www.theguardian.com/business/nils-pratley-on-finance/2017/jul/03/ofgem-energy-price-cap-shows-mays-help-for-millions-is-off-the-boil both 4 July) yet again point out the latest cost escalation and construction delay  that increasingly characterizes the hugely expensive  nuclear white elephant at Hinkley Point C (HPC).
The important public policy question remains: how could this project have continuously received political backing when empirical evidence has increasingly demonstrated the opportunity cost of investment in this atomic behemoth is negative?

A few days after the National Audit Office issued its own damning critique of the financial shambles of HPC (“Spending watchdog condemns 'risky and expensive' Hinkley Point,” 23 June; https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/23/spending-watchdog-condemns-risky-expensive-hinkley-point-c-nuclear) I received a long-awaited (since 10 March this year) adjudication by the Information Commissioner’s Office ICO)  on the appeal I  made against an earlier decision to withhold from disclosure my application for a report on “ financial advice to the UK Government in relation to its new nuclear strategy,” prepared by economic consultants, Evercore, for the department of business, energy and industrial strategy (BEIS).

The ICO rejection letter - Ref: FER0656407 (BEIS) – contains the following justifications for our publicly–funded ICO for  blocking release of this key 166-page document  that underpins the internal logic of backing the ever more expensive  HPC.

After asserting that the report “was prepared using information provided by the Department and information from publicly available sources,”  the ICO - a body that  is supposed to back FOI applicants against  recalcitrant public bodies determined to  keep secret their information -  told me”

 “In submissions to the [information] Commissioner the Department [BEIS] has explained that this advice reflects years of accumulated knowledge of the Evercore team involved and its release into the public domain would prejudice Evercore’s commercial and economic interests by providing a document encapsulating and reflecting that knowledge to Evercore’s competitors.”

In other words the private economic interests of a private consultancy have been put  ahead of the public interest in disclosure of this report. 

ICO also asserted “the Report also contains details of engagement with nuclear developers  and highlights challenges facing them in developing a new nuclear project.  Disclosure of such information could reveal details of meetings between the developers, Government and Evercore and confidential submissions made by the developers to the Department [BEIS]”

Precisely: that is just why it needs to be made public!

When the newly constituted Public Accounts Committee mets for the first time this month in the new Parliament, it should demand disclosure of the Evercore report when EDF officials are called before it to  explain the  revelations and corruscating conclusions of the NAO report on HPC’s ever-expanding  “magic money tree” financial demands.

For my part, I will be appealing against the ICO’s support of secrecy, and take my appeal to the Information Tribunal (yet again), as I find the ICO’s secrecy justifications untenable.

I will not be holding my breath.

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