February 28, 2024

Standing in a field close to the Somerset coast surrounded by her flock of sheep, Juliet Pankhurst shook her head. “It doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “They want to flood this land that has been farmed for generations. We’ve got great crested newts in the pond over there, water voles in the ditches, hares all over the place. They’ll be lost.”

Her partner, Mark Halliwell, shrugged. “But they’ll get their way – they always do. No matter what scheme they come up with.”

The “they” in question is EDF, the French company building the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station a few miles down the coast from the farm. The scheme is to create a salt marsh on the land as “compensation” for dropping an innovative plan to stop millions of fish from swimming into the plant’s cooling system and being killed.

“The whole thing sounds a bit odd,” said Pankhurst.

Usually creating salt marshes – excellent wildlife habitats and carbon stores – is a positive story. This one has been greeted with anger and scepticism in the local area and further afield.

It takes a bit of unravelling. As part of the Hinkley Point C project, EDF had said it would save millions of fish by installing an “acoustic fish deterrent” (AFD) system. The Bristol Channel and Severn estuary are hugely important habitats for species including salmon and eel.

Under the system, almost 300 underwater “sound projectors” would have boomed noise louder than a jumbo jet into the sea to deter fish from entering the plant’s water intakes, nearly two miles offshore.

Construction work at the Hinkley Point C site in December. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

But EDF has changed its mind on the system, arguing that installing and maintaining it would risk the lives of divers working in the fast-flowing, murky water and expressing concerns about the impact of the noise on porpoises, seals, whales.

According to the UK government’s Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science, between 18 and 46 tonnes of fish will be lost a year if no AFD system is used.

So as “compensation”, EDF has proposed to create or enhance native oyster beds, kelp forest and seagrass habitat, and, contentiously, creating about 313 hectares (773 acres) of new salt marsh along the River Parrett at Pawlett Hams, an area of wildlife-rich grassland managed by about 30 landowners, who face having to sell up and move on.

The EDF consultation meeting at Pawlett village hall. Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

Scores of people (under the watchful eye of a police community support officer) turned up for a meeting at Pawlett village hall this week as part of EDF’s consultation on the proposal.

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Robin Edwards

Robin Edwards, whose family have farmed in the area for 80 years, said he would have to move his 150 cattle from the fields. “I’m a tenant there so I won’t get any compensation,” he said. “It will mean keeping my cows inside more, which I don’t like to do. It’s not good.”

Jo Smoldon of the campaign group Stop Hinkley said she was shocked the fish were being sacrificed. “It’s probably all about cost,” she said.

When the Guardian asked EDF representatives at the event how the cost of the “compensation” proposals compared with the price of an AFD system, the response was that the salt marsh scheme was at the “concept” stage, so there were no figures.

Jason and Rachel Fitton. Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

The proposal includes diverting a stretch of the King Charles III England coast path inland. Villager Rachel Fitton, who walks at Pawlett Hams, was in tears at the prospect of the land being flooded.

“It’s so sad for people who love that area,” she said. Her husband, Jason Fitton, said: “It’s insanity, disgraceful. Think of all the hedgerows and wildlife that will be lost.”

The Hampshire company Fish Guidance Systems, which had expected to provide the AFD system, is also unimpressed at EDF’s change of direction, saying it was like building wind turbines that would kill millions of birds and offering to build a nature reserve next door.

FGS says elver migration from the Atlantic is expected to be particularly hard hit with eels “likely to be sucked into the Hinkley intakes” and only a few making it to the Somerset Levels and other habitats.

The company’s managing director, David Lambert, said: “The proposed measures will not replace the lost fish. Given the January announcement that Hinkley Point C won’t be up and running until at least 2031, they have plenty of time to explore options which would prevent unnecessary fish deaths and to look at developments in technology.”

People study a consultation document at the meeting. Photograph: Jim Wileman/The Guardian

In the consultation overview document, NNB Generation Company (HPC), the EDF subsidiary set up to build and operate Hinkley Point C, says there are no examples of AFD systems being installed permanently in the “harsh conditions” found in this part of the Bristol Channel. It said at the time of the original application, AFD systems were regarded as “emerging best practice” but it had now decided that having to use divers made it an “intolerable and unjustifiable” risk.

The document says the new salt marsh would provide an excellent habitat for flora such as sea lavender, glasswort and marsh mallow and for birds like redshank and curlew. It would also provide foraging ground for some, but not all, of the fish species affected.

The consultation runs until the end of February and EDF said views would be considered before it submitted its proposals to the energy secretary, Claire Coutinho. Chris Fayers, head of environment at Hinkley Point C, said: “The new wetland would be a fantastic place for wildlife and a beautiful place to visit.”

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