Stop Sizewell C executive director Alison Downes talks about the continued fight against nuclear power plant
Nestled away in the Sizewell Crossing Industrial Estate lies Bake ‘N’ Butty Cafe - the cafe is only two miles from Sizewell B; a nuclear power station which is home to the UK’s only pressurised water reactor.
Sizewell has a long history of housing nuclear reactors which stretches back to the 1980s, including in 1987 when Secretary of State for Energy Peter Walker consented to planning permission for Sizewell B’s construction.
Today, Sizewell’s community and residents in the surrounding towns and villages find themselves at a similar juncture which has been crossed before, writes Ed Halford.
On July 20, Kwasi Kwarteng, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, confirmed the government had given the Sizewell C project development consent; despite the Planning Inspectorate’s recommendation that the project didn’t go-ahead until issues related to 'scarcity of water' and nature were resolved.
The Sizewell C project could see two European pressurised reactors installed at the cost of £20bn. These reactors have an electrical output of 1,670 megawatts (MW) each and their proposed construction has been presented as central to the government’s target of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
French energy company, EDF, has said the new plant would supply seven per cent of the UK’s energy needs and generate enough electricity for roughly six million homes - being operational as early as 2031, if the construction goes ahead.
Leiston is close by to the fishing hamlet of Sizewell and an ideal place to meet the stalwart member of the Stop Sizewell C campaign, executive director Alison Downes.
As Alison pulled up a chair at the café, she reflected on the events of the recent days, her mood remained upbeat and somewhat resilient.
She said: “Our support base remains very strong and resolute.”
The campaigner highlighted that many supporters viewed 'the Inspectorate’s failure to recommend the project a real victory.'
In their report, the Planning Inspectorate recommended that 'unless the outstanding water supply strategy can be resolved and sufficient information provided to enable the secretary of state to carry out his obligations under the Habitats Regulations, the case for an order granting development consent for the application is not made out.'
Alison has been heavily involved with the campaign to stop the proposed nuclear plant since EDF started consulting in 2012.
Initially called the 'Theberton and Eastbridge Action Group on Sizewell', since 2020 the protest group has mobilised under the more memorable name 'Stop Sizewell C'.
The campaign has received notable support from celebrities residing in the area, with the former BBC Breakfast presenter Bill Turnbull and former resident of Theberton Bill Nighy contributing towards efforts to raise public awareness in the past.
With the application submitted to the Planning Inspectorate in May 2020, Alison spoke to Suffolk News about how the local community had dealt with the toll imposed by never ending consultations and persisting uncertainty.
“In all the months of feeding information, it was a huge burden on communities," Alison explained.
“During Covid-19 there were very few face-to-face hearings and it’s just not the same when you are doing things online.”
Alison indicated that Stop Sizewell C always trusted the Planning Inspectorate to examine all the issues related to the project thoroughly.
She said: "I think there was an overwhelming sense that the Planning Inspectorate was prepared to be robust about issues which were deeply problematic."
The project has not yet been finalised and residents are still awaiting the Government’s final investment decision.
Alison suggested that it is likely this decision will come sooner rather than later.
She said: "Our understanding was that the government was very keen to push forward with the government investment decision pretty soon after planning consent was granted.
"We’ve sent a very strong message, saying that this is not the time to do that. There is very clear guidance that caretaker administrations ought not to be making big decisions.”
In response to the Government granting development consent, in a personal statement on Sizewell's MP Therese Coffey’s constituency website she expressed her surprise that the Government had proceeded with the project given the Planning Inspectorate’s recommendations.
In the statement, she said: "The main question people understandably are asking is why the Secretary of State went against the recommendation of the Planning Inspectorate, which surprised me too.
"I have written to the Secretary of State to seek a meeting to discuss this further and how he intends to ensure the conditions of the order will be fulfilled."
Alison said that she hoped the cabinet minister would 'very robustly' put forward her 'constituents’ views' and said the campaign was 'encouraged that she is seeking to have a meeting with the Secretary of State' to discuss the outstanding issues.
Stop Sizewell C fears that the nuclear plant’s construction could have extremely negative consequences for the thriving tourism sector and the neighbouring coastal towns of Southwold and Aldeburgh.
According to Visit East of England, the visitor economy of the East of England is valued at more than £10bn a year. This figure explains why the prospect of this sector being negatively affected has raised concerns.
Alison said: “Tourism is overall very important to the area but individual businesses can be quite fragile and there is not a lot of margin between profit and loss.
“There will be impacts and there will be impacts which will be very personally felt by those who run B&Bs and small holiday businesses.”
EDF and supporters of the new plant have argued that Sizewell C will provide a boost to the local economy and create thousands of new construction and technical jobs.
In EDF’s 'Socio-economic Impact Report' for Hinkley Point C, they have outlined the economic benefits of their projects; revealing that the construction of Hinkley Point C has so far created 380 apprenticeships and employs 1,700 people locally.
Andy Woods, chief executive of Southwold based brewery, Adnams, also voiced his concerns with the project going ahead.
He said: “We are not against nuclear per se but we are against this particular project for the following reasons: the scale is enormous, it will bring profound disruption to people’s lives for over a decade and the company responsible for the build have a questionable record of delivery.
"These factors allied to environmental concerns, the impact on the visitor economy and the unproven technology, lead us to this position. We must also remember the decision to grant the Development Consent Order was against the advice of the Planning Inspectorate."
Stop Sizewell C remains optimistic that there is still time to stop the project.
Alison said there was a possibility that 'there are precedents for projects having planning consent and never actually being built.'
She added: "The fact it has planning consent doesn’t automatically mean that it is going to go-ahead.”
"The road has steepened but we feel that there is still plenty of scope to campaign against the project - we are still at least 12 months away, if not longer, from the final investment decision."
With the Conservative Party leadership contest still in full swing, Alison also hinted that a new leader could result in the Government reconsidering their development decision.
She said: "There will be a lot of pressure on the new leader to do things differently. We will certainly be doing our best to persuade either candidate."
With the country still in the dark about who will soon be their next Prime Minister, the Sizewell C project has overcome another hurdle on the path to the construction phase.
With the Government yet to make an investment decision and applications to the High Court for a judicial review of the process still possible, the status of this project remains far from clear cut and the months ahead are likely to be crucial.