A decision by the board of French energy giant EDF to approve construction of two new nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset was given a lukewarm response by Theresa May's government last night.
In a shock move, business and energy secretary Greg Clark said the Government will now review the details and make a decision in the autumn. It had been expected to sign contracts with EDF almost immediately.
"The UK needs a reliable and secure energy supply and the Government believes that nuclear energy is an important part of the mix. The Government will now consider carefully all the component parts of this project and make its decision in the early autumn," said Clark.
Government sources last night calmed talk of a full-blown u-turn or formal review by stressing that such a momentous decision needed careful consideration under a new Prime Minister. However, the delay will be seen by many as a sign that May is not fully behind the plans for Britain's first new nuclear plant in decades.
The new reactors at Hinkley Point C have faced a wall of criticism over their £18bn-plus cost, "outmoded" technology, and anticipated delays.
It has also faced opposition within EDF. Although the company's 18-strong board yesterday backed the investment case for the controversial power plant, reports put the vote at 10 board members for it and seven against.
Read More: EDF's board approves Hinkley Point project
Just hours earlier, one member of the board resigned in protest, describing Hinkley as "very risky". Gerard Magnin's comments echoed those of EDF's former chief financial officer, Thomas Piquemal, who also quit earlier this year over what he saw as the financial burden of the project for the French firm.
Hinkley Point C is expected to generate enough electricity to meet seven per cent of the UK’s needs, powering about 5.8m homes. It will be built by EDF and part funded by China Nuclear Power Generation.
Critics say the build is poor value for money for UK consumers, who could eventually pay almost £30bn in subsidies for the power produced under a deal agreed by the Government.
Dr Paul Dorfman, senior research fellow at the Energy Institute at University College London and founder of the Nuclear Consulting Group, said: "Whilst the rest of the world is going for a renewable revolution we are going to be suck with an outdated and outmoded technology, and to be sealed into a 35 year contract at three times the price we currently pay for electricity."
The contract allows the project to be delayed until as late as 2033.
"This project is already eight years delayed, it still has serious technical problems and the Government has no assurance that it will be producing power by 2025 when coal is no longer supplying what we need," shadow energy secretary Barry Gardiner said.
A spokesman for the Institute of Directors, who support nuclear energy, said "We don't think that this should be a model for future plans, not least because reactors don't always have to be that big."
However, the British Chambers of Commerce acting director general Adam Marshall said: "While there will always be debate around the cost of major projects, the price of inaction is larger still."