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Government Big Projects..... and how they can go wrong

Theresa May appeared to have cancelled the Chinese reactor project and now it has been re-instated. Problems solved or penalty clauses too steep?

Those of us who remember our history will recall that Napoleon, having escaped from Elba and caused further aggravation, was finally dispatched to St Helena, a remote island in the Atlantic.

It now has a new airport designed to make access considerably easier. I just met a couple on holiday from their who tipped me off to the wind sheer problems at the airport.

What the article doesn't say is that the 5 months of weather data now collected should have been 6 months of data from before they finalised on the location and design. Choosing the top of a cliff doesn't seem to have been too good an idea and while it might be that wind shear can be dangerous, other such islands, including Ascension, the intermediate stop on the way there, doesn't seem to be "unsafe".

Instead we were told that there was a single C130 flight one a calm day and then they built the airport. Now they find that only smaller aircraft can use it and not the bigger aircraft intended.
Wind shear can cause a few passenger nerves to flutter even at airports where the problem is within manageable limits. I recall flying into Boston and being concerned that we seemed to be flying sideways to the runway due to the high cross winds..... and as soon as the wheels touched own the aircraft was whipped around to line up with the runway. Now that was simply due to the wind direction through the entire approach. Wind shear is a variation in horizontal or vertical over a short distance.... more worrying still.

This quote from another article tells us something of the situation:

"The international development secretary, Priti Patel, has responded to the criticism by saying she will establish a panel of experts to look into how the airport can be made to work.

“Clearly some decisions were not up to scratch, but this is not a postmortem. It is about finding a solution,” a government source said."

Clearly some decisions were not up to scratch. Yes, a solution is needed but a postmortem is necessary to make sure wrong decisions are not again made. A new Chinese reactor is a pretty significant project upon which such similar "not up to scratch" decisions could be far more catastrophic and expensive.
While Priti Patel does need to find a solution, a postmortem is also essential, not a cover up.

This article ( seems to confirm that test were made after they had built it and not before.

Quite what solution they can come up with for St Helena I don't know. Start again probably. But if my local informants are right, here is one of those projects where it has all gone (probably avoidably) wrong and someone will be stuck with the bill. Oh wait, that's us.

Re: Government Big Projects..... and how they can go wrong

I should point out that Hinkley C isn't a Chinese reactor - it's a French reactor. EDF stands for "Électricité de France", and the firm is also the world's biggest producer of electricity. I think the background to how the Chinese got involved in Hinkley was that Centrica (owners of British Gas) had a 20% stake in the Hinkley project for several years. Centrica was rather a strange partner to have in a nuclear power plant project, as they are predominantly associated with natural gas, and might be expected to have a vested interest in nuclear projects not actually going ahead. Centrica pulled out of the Hinkley project in early 2013 and EDF had to look for a substitute, and some Chinese companies then came in to replace Centrica. There is the possibility of a Chinese reactor being built in the UK in a few years time (at Bradwell in Essex), but that isn't a formality, as they would have to get their design accepted by the UK's nuclear regulator (and quite a few international nuclear firms seem to have pulled out after dealing with the UK's nuclear regulator).

But the way the Lib Dems have set up the Hinkley C project, you don't really have to worry about a St Helena airport-type fiasco occurring. The Hinkley project is actually set up from the outset as though such a fiasco might occur. The UK taxpayer doesn't pay for the construction of Hinkley C, only for the high priced electricity that eventually comes out of it. If the project got into major difficulties, like say taking 20 years to build or hardly any electricity being generated when it became operational, those costs would not be met by the UK taxpayer (I'm not sure who would be paying, it might mainly be French and Chinese taxpayers).

I'm not quite sure what was going on a while back when Theresa May decided to hold up the Hinkley C project for about a month or so. UK financial and business journalists all seemed to think the project was going to be cancelled, which I thought myself was unlikely, but those sort of journalists were also unable to forsee the EU Referendum result. I speculated in the Hinkley Point Big Numbers thread that Theresa May might be intervening to reduce the £92.50/MWh electricity price figure (the price for the equivalent of the Hinkley C design in France, at Flamanville, is reputed to be less than £60/MWh), but that didn't happen. It looks like May might have held things up simply because she didn't trust people like David Cameron, George Osborne and Ed Davey.

Re: Government Big Projects..... and how they can go wrong

It seems Mrs merkel, having decided to close all German nuclear reactors, now wants other Eu countries to follow suit (perhaps worried about energy cost competition?) and she includes France.
That we currently rely on French nuclear reactors for topping up when we fall short on production, it seems we really do need to get a move on with our own nuclear reactors.... hopefully future reactors will be better managed.

Re ST Helena Airport: My informants tell me they have been round the airport and it is smart and modern and complete with the usual shops..... though the economics are curious. IT was sold to the locals as being a boon to tourism.... but they can only see two to three flights a week. Besides, they say, the paint scheme is very much reminiscent of MOD airports, not commercial and they do wonder of this isn't, or was supposed to be a sort of trojan horse..... a means to establish an airport which, while not safe for commercial flights, can take smaller aircraft and may be intended to have a military aviation dimension. That is, to set up as an alternative to the Ascension Island base run by the US..... and it wouldn't surprise that the newly revealed EU commitment to its own military would also include a way to circumvent any dependence on Ascension Island and the Us..... consistent with their objective to end the "Anglo-Saxon" influence......

My views on the EU make me think this isn't such a stretch. It would be quite like the EU to advertise a project as something it could never be and could never deliver but which had a quite different motivation behind it. Overcoming islander objections to a military airfield would be accomplished by selling it as a commercial airport..... it appears the contractors, who had only previously re-surfaced runways, are not actually at fault here and may have done exactly what they were supposed to do.

The full story should be interesting except that Prtia Patel doesn't seem to want us to know the full story.

Re: Government Big Projects..... and how they can go wrong

It looks to me like the main person responsible for the St Helena airport fiasco is the former Conservative minister Andrew Mitchell. He seems to have put quite a bit more effort into making the decision than might be first thought, holding up the finance for the airport for over a year in order to be satisfied that four conditions were met:

Mitchell statement

But the conditions unfortunately did not include investigation of the potential 'showstopper' problem of it being too windy on the island to build an airport.

Mitchell is most famous for being the MP at the centre of the "Plebgate" incident. After a two year stint at the Department of International Development, Mitchell was then made Chief Whip in a re-shuffle in 2012 and two weeks into the new job, he got embroiled in Plebgate and resigned a few weeks later.

To give details for non-UK readers, Plebgate involved an altercation between Mitchell and police officers guarding the gates to the entrance of the street that the Prime Minister lives in, Downing Street, where the police insisted that Mitchell, who was riding a bicycle, had to leave by a pedestrian gate rather than the main gate which cars used. Mitchell swore at the officers (well-heeled Brits tend to swear a lot nowadays), but the sticking point was whether he called the officers 'plebs'. Later on Mitchell tried to sue the Sun newspaper over their claim that he had used the term 'pleb', but lost the libel case (the case is reputed to have cost Mitchell £2 million).

What was a member of the Cabinet doing riding about on a bicycle? That I think was to do with David Cameron's "Vote Blue Go Green" policy. Presumably you were well thought of by Cameron if you went to work on a bike.

Re: Government Big Projects..... and how they can go wrong

On working out who was responsible for the St Helena airport fiasco, it looks like Alan Duncan could be another major contender, based on this interview he gave in June 2015:

Duncan interview

The extract from the interview relevant to St Helena is this bit, in which he bragged about how 'successful' the airport project had been:

"We decided we would build an airport on St Helena. £200 million and I said ‘never before has this department spent this money on an infrastructure project, nor has any infrastructure project been handled, you know, at such a distance. I therefore require someone who can advise me on what constitutes a proper, fair and as far as possible, risk-free building contract so we can avoid all the overruns. Someone who can oversee it, to make sure that it has been implemented as per the contract’. And as far as I know, that has gone absolutely brilliantly and I think a lot of that is down to the absolutely rigorous monitoring and drawing up a very, very tight fixed-price contract in the first place, with no variables which suddenly hit you in the gob and add £30 million.

So I think that has been a success. It has been an amazing project. Whether there will be any planes going to the airport later is another matter. But actually that was part of it, an air services contract. You know, you have got to have the building contract, the safety contract, the accompanying, if you like, hotels, accommodation for the supposed tourist benefit and an air service agreement and fuel, fuel tankage so all of these things had to come into a strict and big picture to make it all work."

Duncan was Minister of State for International Development from 2010-14, and he apparently only covered certain parts of the world that he preferred, which excluded Africa, but did include the Middle East, Palestinian Authority, Yemen, Bangladesh, Burma, Nepal and the Overseas Territories (St Helena is one of these "overseas territories"). He received a knighthood in 2014 for his four years service as a minister.