Why risk everything for 4 per cent

Gordon James says the Japanese tsunami should trigger a debate on Wylfa

For the world’s media, the fate of Japan’s nuclear power plants rocked by explosions following the earthquake and tsunami has now become as much a focus of attention as the awful human and economic consequences. The urgent priority for the Japanese authorities is to tackle the immediate crisis at the nuclear plant, and we hope they get the situation under control as soon as possible.

Although it seems that a Chernobyl-type meltdown will be avoided, the unfolding events are sending political shockwaves across Europe and beyond. In Germany, the media has reported that Chancellor Merkel will suspend the lifetime extensions granted to its 17 nuclear power plants following a demonstration by 60,000 people on the streets of Stuttgart on Saturday.

For us in Wales, this latest nuclear scare should also trigger a vigorous debate on whether a new nuclear power station should be built at Wylfa on Anglesey. Although the First Minister and his deputy have expressed support for the project, the Welsh Government’s stated opposition has sounded less convincing in recent months.

During an Assembly question time last November, Nick Bourne accused Jane Davidson of being “incredibly opaque” in her reply on the need for new build at Wylfa. The Environment Minister might have lacked her usual clarity on Wylfa but she was spot on when she stated in her reply that she “did not want to see money going to nuclear energy at the expense of renewable energy”.

This, sadly, is precisely what has happened. When UK Energy Minister Chris Huhne announced in October the welcome cancelling of the Cardiff to Weston Severn Barrage proposal, he also confirmed his U-turn on nuclear power by stating his government planned to build eight new nuclear power stations. Other more acceptable technologies for harnessing the huge tidal resource of the Severn would also be sacrificed on the altar of nuclear power.

The diversion of limited resources and of political attention away from energy options that could cut carbon emissions sooner, cheaper and safer than nuclear power has been one of Friends of the Earth Cymru’s long-standing objections to new nuclear build.

Our concerns have been articulated by energy experts such as Professor Catherine Mitchell of Exeter University. In her 2006 paper published by the University of Warwick, New Nuclear Power: Implications for a Sustainable Energy System, she wrote:

“The scale of financial, political and institutional commitments required to build new nuclear power stations will undermine support for renewable and demand reduction measures… and will actively limit the UK’s ability to meet its climate change targets.”

Chris Huhne’s funding at the Energy Department reflects this. Over half of its budget is spent on nuclear power, a source of energy that contributes less than four per cent to the UK’s energy needs.

Although Wylfa is unlikely to be rocked by an earthquake on the scale of the Japanese one, other threats, such as terrorist attacks and the huge problem of safeguarding extremely hazardous nuclear waste for thousands of years, should also force us to question the need for an energy source which makes a small contribution while undermining attempts to tackle climate change.

Wales has an abundance of renewable energy sources, which our government wishes to harness. Meanwhile, the scandalous way in which energy is wasted is exposed by the development of new power stations along the south Wales coast.

Built or planned power stations at Pembroke, Uskmouth, and both Abernedd and Prenergy at Port Talbot will all dump vast amounts of waste heat into the atmosphere or the marine environment. Pembroke alone will waste the equivalent of forty per cent of Wales’ electricity demand instead of capturing it, as Denmark does, in combined heat and power systems.

The tragic events in Japan should make us realise that Wales’ huge potential for delivering energy from renewable sources while slashing energy waste can provide the cleaner, safer future we need.

Gordon James is Director of Friends of the Earth Cymru

4 thoughts on “Why risk everything for 4 per cent

  1. If G Monbiot is anything to go by, it seems that climate change campaigners are divided on this issue. I heard Monbiot (qualified for) versus Caroline Lucas (against) on Radio 4 last night; Monbiot still for nuclear power, though not in risky locations. So presumably he’d be for a new one at Wylfa. Me I’m more sceptical and agree with C Lucas.

  2. That a tsunami or earthquake is unlikely at Wylfa does not ensure it’s safe. Because of associated spent-fuel stores, any disruption of electrical supplies can cause fires and evaporation of this extremely dangerous material – as is happening in the stores at Fukushima.
    The new ‘high burnup’ fuel planned for the UK reactors leaves many times worse radioactive waste than that in Japan, and has to be stored on site for 100 or 160 yrs.

    Our gung-ho politicians and civil servants just ignored the difference, but in the Japanese context such fuel would release an order of magnitude more radioactivity, ten times perhaps that of Chernobyl.

    Hugh Richards of WANA made this argument, in the year before he sadly died, to the Welsh Assembly government and to the Env Agency +HSE.

  3. Please keep up – the problem with campaigners now is their unfamiliarity with past lessons and lack of information on issues that are ‘on the table’ at public inquiry level. Firstly, Pembroke nuclear plant was dismissed as an idea in 1985 when I wrote to the Western Mail explaining the rules that such construction would not be allowed near an oil refinery. Secondly, the earthquake at Wylfa in 1983 had serious repurcussions in that the loading gantry in the spent fuel storage facility was badly damaged and became in-operable. The small sized tremors experienced in Britain has even more serious consequences for Nuclear Waste disposal. Operators cannot guarantee predictable ground water movement through a waste repository sited anywhere in rock in the UK, procluding the expansion of nuclear energy. Evidence relating to such will be presented to any inquiry into furthur nuclear orders and witnesses from past inquiries, or their successors, will be invited to explain what progress has been made. (Watch closely events in the Sahara region where dry rocks exist in stable locations). Finally, the events in Japan will overtake us. The result of having loss of coolant with the control rods in place will result in slower melt. This process will be faster if water moderater is left inside the reactor as in reactor No 2 there. Partial melt will render any attempt to render full cooling of the core difficult when pressurised coolant is restored. Configuration allows for even dispersal of heat throughout the coolant passing over the fuel at high pressure. Partial melt may have caused warping of rods and hence dangerous configuration in which hot-spots could result. Further disintegration of cladding could lead to more Hydrogen gas being evolved. I doubt if anyone knows the effects of exposing hot radioactive fuel to salt water. The worst is not yet over at Fukushima. The burning of a core will make Chernobyl look like air freshener (the words of the GB nuclear industry, not mine) Finally, I wonder if the perceived safety of reactors in accident situations now depends on the direction of the wind, as part of the criteria, which of course is a matter of luck, not judgement.

  4. I agree with the idea of trying to build and promote renewable energy sources, however if we solely focused on that we may not have enough power as we use it at such a large rate. I have always been worried about nuclear power since Chernobyl as nobody wants that to happen again. Also it is a lot of effort to make sure nuclear power plants are kept safe even though Wales will not experience earthquakes.

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