Gareth Clubb argues we should be concerned about proposals for a new nuclear plant on the Somerset coast
So the Environment Agency is consulting on environmental permits for a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point. Big deal – after all, Wylfa’s the only nuclear power station that concerns us in Wales, right?
Wrong. Hinkley Point is a huge deal for us in Wales. Barry – Wales’ fourth largest settlement – lies just 15 miles across the water from Hinkley. Cardiff and Newport are less than 30 miles away. When Fukushima went up, President Obama ordered the evacuation of all US citizens from a 50 mile radius from the disaster site. What would a full evacuation in a radius of 50 miles from Hinkley Point mean for Wales?
We’d be looking at the evacuation of more than a million people – the entirety of the Vale of Glamorgan, Cardiff, Newport, Monmouthshire, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Bridgend, Torfaen, Blaenau Gwent, Merthyr Tudful, Caerffili, Neath Port Talbot and the city of Swansea.
A major nuclear incident at Hinkley Point therefore presents us with the unthinkable – total breakdown of Wales’ governance, irrecoverable economic and environmental damage, not to mention social collapse. What of people with limited means or ability to move at very short notice?
The nuclear industry continually tells us not to worry, that they have plenty of failsafe devices to ensure such an event wouldn’t happen. They told us that before Chernobyl and Fukushima. There was an average of more than 250 safety incidents at UK nuclear reactors every year between 2001 and 2008 – that’s one for every weekday. Half of these incidents were serious enough to potentially challenge a nuclear safety system. And there are 30 accidents involving trains carrying spent nuclear fuel every year in Britain. Feeling reassured yet?
The fact is that low probability, but high impact events can and do occur. Who would have thought ten years ago that airliners could be hijacked and used as weapons on civilian targets?
Of course, safety is not the only issue with nuclear power. It is also incredibly expensive, and totally dependent on implicit and explicit subsidies from the taxpayer. In 2010 the UK Government gave a commitment that new nuclear power stations would only proceed “provided that they receive no public subsidy”. The Energy and Climate Change Select Committee has already highlighted some nuclear subsidies in its report from April this year. The simple fact is that without the following subsidies the nuclear industry would be unviable:
- Limitations on liabilities: operators’ insurance liabilities are limited to the first £140 million of claims. The UK Government is responsible for insurance for the following £300 million. It is not clear if there is insurance that would cover any amount above and beyond £440 million.
- Underwriting of commercial risks: the UK Government has underwritten most of the commercial risks of nuclear power. The UK Government’s bailout of British Energy to the tune of £5 billion is a good example. The fact is that if a nuclear operator goes out of business there is no one other than government who can step in to avoid failure of the nuclear industry. In the meantime, generous dividends are paid to private shareholders in an example of a business model that follows the banking sector: socialising the losses and privatising the profits.
- Protection against terrorist attack: the UK Government established the Civil Nuclear Constabulary to protect nuclear resources from attack. There are more than 1,000 police officers in this body which had a budget of more than £61 million in 2010-11. Publicly-funded sources – the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and British Energy – provide 95 per cent of this budget.
- The charges levied on nuclear operators for disposal of waste by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority are substantially below commercial rates. A commercial rate would kill any prospect of new nuclear build. The costs arising from dealing with highly reactive nuclear waste will be borne by future generations who will receive no compensatory benefit.
- It is impossible for government to shed responsibility for decommissioning to the private sector because of the ever-present risk that nuclear companies will fail. Government is therefore forced into de facto underwriting of these uninsurable costs.
- Many taxpayer funded institutions prop up the nuclear industry, including the National Nuclear Laboratory, the Office for Nuclear Development, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (currently swallowing half of budget of the Department of Energy and Climate Change) and the Office for Nuclear Regulation.
The present Hinkley B power station, rated at 840 MW, is due for decommissioning in 2016. The proposed Hinkley C power station will have a capacity of 3,260 MW. For comparison, Fukushima was rated at 4,700 MW.
Because the planning and permitting processes take several years, the opportunities for people in Wales to have their say will come at different times and cover different aspects of the application. So while the planning application has not yet been submitted to the Infrastructure Planning Commission, the consultation on environmental permits, run by the Environment Agency, closes on 6 October 2011.
This consultation is important not least because it includes disposal of radioactive waste. Nuclear power is expensive, unsafe, it squeezes out investment in renewables, and it leaves a legacy of highly radioactive waste to unborn generations for thousands of years to come.