Questioning the safety of the next generation of nuclear reactors

Carl Clowes looks back at the life of one of Wales’s leading anti-nuclear campaigners

Hugh Richards, ardent anti-nuclear activist and one of the founders of the Welsh Anti-Nuclear Alliance (WANA) has died aged 65. He was a leading member of  the Nuclear Consultation Group comprising many of leading UK experts in the fields of environmental risk, radiation waste, energy policy, energy economics and democratic involvement. In this capacity he was involved in advising the Welsh Government on its planning role in relation to the proposed renewal of the nuclear reactor at Wylfa on Anglesey, persuading Environment Minister Jane Davidson to support a public inquiry.

Born in Cardiff, Hugh Richards trained both as an architect (gaining a first class degree) and a town planner. Following a period working in Liverpool and London, he moved back to Wales with his wife Mag to start a family and live a more sustainable lifestyle.

This move coincided with the first big UK set piece nuclear public inquiry at Windscale and soon Hugh became embroiled in opposition to nuclear power. He campaigned against proposals to dump nuclear waste in mid-Wales and, by the end of the 1980s, was central in the campaigns to establish Cymdeithas Atal Dinistr Niwclear Oesol (CADNO) in Meirionnydd and People Against Wylfa-B/Pobl Atal Wylfa B (PAWB) in Ynys Mon, both instrumental in fighting plans to develop new nuclear power stations.

Frustrated with the amount of time he could spend in campaigning, Hugh reversed roles with Mag and became primarily a house father whilst, at the same time, establishing a private practice as a planning and design consultant. Indeed, he designed the home where Billy and Tom, his two sons with severe learning disabilities live as part of the Ashfield Community Enterprise, a centre based on sustainable principles.

In 1992, he was a candidate for the Green Party in the Brecon and Radnor constituency, fighting for the rights of people with learning disabilities as well as on environmental issues.

In recent years, Hugh’s work on nuclear waste and spent fuel management was highly valued. He showed that the new generation of reactors, in using high burn-up fuel as proposed by Westinghouse and Areva, create a waste which is typically hotter and longer-lived than existing reactors. He argued passionately that the use of such fuel would make the plants “more vulnerable to terrorists” as it would need to be stored on-site for up to 160 years. In a short paper in 2007 – “Storing up Trouble” – he noted that 30 years after start-up of the proposed Westinghouse AP-1000, the radioactive inventory would be “approximately 22 times that released by Chernobyl”.

It was this work that led Jane Davidson, the Environment Minister in Wales, to support WANA’s call for an inquiry into the proposed nuclear new build at Wylfa, because the case for new build had not been “legally justified” and there was no credible solution in relation to nuclear waste. Hugh published an article revealing the Welsh Government’s uneasiness about the next generation of nuclear reactors in the Winter 2009 issue of the IWA’s journal Agenda, which is re-published by clickonwales today alongside this obituary. In a letter in August last year to Hugh, responding to his call for a public inquiry, Jane Davidson said:

“You will be aware that the Department of Energy and Climate Change has recently consulted on an application by the Nuclear Industry Association for EU regulatory justification of new nuclear reactor designs in the UK. I have carefully considered the points raised in that consultation and other matters and I have written to the DECC Minister supporting a public inquiry for the proposed new nuclear reactors on the grounds of concerns over the safety and security of the management of future radioactive waste.”

Hugh had a capacity to produce papers which were a persuasive mix of scientific analysis and effective communication. Indeed, as recently as 18 June, he completed a coruscating critique of Government plans to manage nuclear waste by a fixed unit price (FUP), concluding “the case for the government and taxpayer taking on any risk for the waste and disposal costs has not been made. The whole idea of a FUP is deeply flawed and flaunts International Atomic Energy Agency guidance on mechanisms for financing the safe management of spent fuel.”

In a telephone conversation just before he died Hugh was as convinced as ever that the nuclear ambitions of Horizon and EDF were wholly unsustainable environmentally, economically and morally. “Hold your nerve. We shall prevail,” were his final sentiments.

A group of Hugh’s campaigning colleagues wrote to him shortly before he died “your legacy may well have a long half-life”. Indeed it will! A lecture is to be established in Hugh’s name to honour the work he did.

Dr Carl Iwan Clowes is a board member of Public Health Wales, a member of PAWB, and Founder of Nant Gwrtheyrn National Language Centre and Wales Honorary Consul for Lesotho. This tribute includes contributions from colleagues David Lowry and Dylan Morgan.

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