Campaigners bring High Court challenge over Sizewell C nuclear plant approval

The Government’s “unlawful” decision to back the new Sizewell C nuclear power plant failed to assess possible environmental impacts and should be overturned, campaigners have argued at the High Court.

Protest group Together Against Sizewell C has launched a bid to challenge development consent granted for the multibillion-pound project in Suffolk by then Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng in July 2022.

At a hearing in London on Wednesday, lawyers for the local residents argued that the Government failed to assess the impact of providing an “essential” water supply to the project and did not consider “alternative solutions” to meeting its energy and climate change objectives.

They also argue that the Government irrationally concluded the power station site would be clear of nuclear material by 2140, when rising sea levels and storm surges could flood the site before it has been decontaminated.

The Government, supporting the project with a £700 million stake, argues that it made “legitimate planning judgments” and that the campaigners’ “unarguable” challenge should be dismissed.

Boris Johnson visit to East of England
Campaigners have previously criticised the Government’s move to back the new nuclear power plant project (Chris Radburn/PA)

French energy giant EDF, due to develop the project through NNB Generation Company (SZC) Limited, says Sizewell C is expected to generate low-carbon electricity to supply six million homes.

Ministers previously said the project would create 10,000 highly skilled jobs, with its go-ahead being welcomed by unions and the nuclear industry.

But campaigners criticise the move, saying it went against the recommendation of the planning inspectorate and the advice of government conservation agency Natural England.

In a report, the examining authority recommended that unless the “outstanding water supply strategy can be resolved” and sufficient information provided to Government then the case for consent was not made out.

David Wolfe KC, representing Together Against Sizewell C, said in written arguments that it remained “completely obscure” when a water supply solution could be implemented.

He said the Government should have “appropriately assessed the environmental impact of the construction and operation of the candidate water supply solutions with the rest of the project”.

The barrister added that there was “no evidence that a permanent potable water supply solution would be identified, designed, authorised, implemented and operational before 2035 and … without that solution in place, the power station cannot operate”.

Water supply options previously discussed included building a 28km pipeline or constructing a permanent desalination plant close to the power station, which could impact on protected areas, he said.

Mr Wolfe said that “uncertainty” over the water supply, coupled with the one of two reactors being operational by the end of 2033 at the earliest, meant that the Government had “no sufficient evidence” to concluded the plant could contribute to a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 78% on 1990 levels by 2035.

Mr Wolfe also argued that the Government’s approach to the project was “to exclude all other options for generating electricity and mitigating the effects of climate change simply because … the nuclear option meets the policy objectives to a greater extent and is more attractive”.

He added that the Government, by allegedly “ignoring” an alternative decommissioning timetable, runs an “extremely serious” risk that future flooding could cause “waste to enter the sea”.

James Strachan KC, for the Government, said in written arguments that campaigners arguments were “simply reflecting disagreements” heard during consultation.

Boris Johnson visit to East of England
Then-prime minister Boris Johnson during a visit to EDF’s Sizewell B nuclear power station in Suffolk on September 1, 2022 (Chris Radburn/PA)

He said there was “nothing unusual” in a project not identifying a utility supply when this is provided by others, adding that regional plans from Northumbrian Water Limited needed to be considered.

The barrister said, but for the water supply issue, the examining authority concluded the case for developing the project “would strongly outweigh any adverse impacts”.

He said the Government was “lawfully entitled” to conclude that EDF had shown a long-term water supply was “viable in principle” and was “not a barrier to granting consent”.

Mr Strachan said the Government had considered alternative means of electricity generation and that its decision did not show it had placed “decisive” weight on the project’s contribution to the emission reduction target.

A commitment to achieving net zero by 2050 was taken into account, he said, adding that the developer would need to show sea defences will continue to protect the site if its life is extended, or provide additional protection.

Hereward Phillpot KC, for NNB Generation Company (SZC), said in written arguments that there was an “urgent need for nuclear new build” and that it had been found in relation to coastal defences that “proper mitigation and regulation was in place to address nuclear safety issues”.

He said the Government had reached “a reasonable and lawful conclusion” that a water supply source was not part of the same project consent was sought for.

The House of Commons was told in November that China was “bought out” of a deal on Sizewell to ensure it was not involved in the development.

MPs also heard calls this month for ministers to “come clean” over the costs of the project.

The hearing before Mr Justice Holgate is due to last two days, with a ruling expected at a later date.