Vincent de Rivaz (pictured), CEO of EDF, had the look of a man caught between the proverbial rock and hard place this morning as he appeared before the UK’s Energy and Climate Committee to answer pointed questions from MPs regarding the Hinkley Point C nuclear power project.
At issue was the continuing delay surrounding the final investment decision, for which de Rivaz refused to give a definite date despite prodding by MPs who tried different vectors of attack in succession until it became apparent that a date would not be forthcoming.
‘At the last hearing in March, there was the expectation that we would have taken the final investment decision by now,’ de Rivaz said, looking harassed and uncomfortable. ‘That was my hope too.’
Throughout the proceedings he repeatedly emphasized that the process is still on track to deliver the plant by 2025 – or perhaps 2026 – even though EDF is in the midst of a 60-day (or perhaps longer – “I am not going to give a precise date”) consultation on the project with French trade unions, which he admitted are of the opinion that the investment decision should be further delayed.
“The current position of some French unions is to postpone the project for two to three years,” he said. “Our position is that there is no need for delay because the project is ready. No project has been better prepared as a result of our intensive work over the last decade.
“We must absolutely not delay it because the UK needs electricity by the time it’s due to come online.”
As the consultation went on, it became apparent that de Rivaz was simply unable to give the Committee the reassurance they wanted, being constrained not to prejudice ongoing negotiations with the French trade unions. In essence, he had turned up in order to give answers which he was unable to give, and his lack of comfort with the situation was clear.
“I understand the impatience that you express,” he told the Committee, “but we have at the same time to remain calm. If I was prejudging the outcome of the consultation process I would harm the process.”
In reference to the unions, he said there is “common ground between us all about the huge importance of this project in all its dimensions and the need to get it right. I’m very confident that the consultation will build on this common ground.”
The unions’ top concern, he said, was EDF’s financial situation, which he said has been addressed: “We have a plan which will secure for the group, in the next few years, its overall financial trajectory”. One MP echoed this concern in asking how confident de Rivaz himself was that the plan would alleviate EDF’s cash flow and profitability problems. De Rivaz responded: “The plan gives EDF the means to develop and secure its future”. It includes a €10bn asset disposal programme to be completed by 2020, efforts to strengthen the firm’s efficiency programme and reduce spending by €1bn by 2019, and a capital base increase of €4bn.
And, “in contrast to recent media reports”, he said the cost of the project “remains the same” at £18bn.
Next on the union’s list of concerns, de Rivaz said there is “the perception that some unions have that we may benefit from delaying the decision significantly in light of the project itself and some of the risks associated with any large construction project,” which he answered by saying that “there is no need to spend more time to be ready – that is our opinion”.
“[The unions] challenge the fact that we are fully ready. That is a healthy discussion – they have the right to different views. It is our role to explain in good faith,” he said, adding that there had been “five long hours of very tense discussion” with the unions earlier this month.
In the end, de Rivaz did his best to convince the Committee, without being able to provide many concrete details, that all factors point to an eventual positive outcome.
One MP tried a different tack, asking, “Can you confirm that Hinkley Point C will be operational in 2025?” De Rivaz responded: “We understand fully the need for this to be the case. At the moment when everything is set, we will confirm the exact date of commissioning.
“The project is not on hold,” he concluded. “The consultation does not postpone or delay the project because we are still working on it.”
In an emailed response to the session, Greenpeace chief scientist Dr Doug Parr said: “Hinkley Point C is far from ready. There are massive barriers to it delivering power to the UK within the next decade. A major issue is the fact that the EDF board, engineers and unions are yet to be convinced that building Hinkley is even possible, and just trying to build it could bankrupt the company.
“Vincent de Rivaz’s confidence might be heartwarming for blind enthusiasts but he wasn’t even able to give a date when the company would meet to decide whether or not to go ahead with building the power station. This lack of conviction starkly contradicts his own much repeated assertion that no project is as ready as Hinkley.”