English power station points at Wales

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.

Gareth Clubb is Director of Friends of the Earth Cymru.

10 thoughts on “English power station points at Wales

  1. I agree with your concerns, but citizens who share such beliefs must also be committed to both investing in all forms of renewables (a nimby free zone) and spending hugely on energy conservation. Without these two critical actions, new nuclear is inevitable as the energy gap is too great.
    With energy as with so many things in life, we cannot have our cake and eat it.

  2. I agree with George Monbiot that Fukushima actually highlights the improved safety of nuclear in recent decades. Considering what a battering this decades-old facility took and that it was poorly sited ancillary equipment that caused the problems, not the facility itself, new nuclear plants are safer than many conventional approaches.

    I used to be anti-nuclear, but I changed as the facts changed. The real question is this: do we want to decarbonise the economy or don’t we? I do and the only way this is going to be done in a practical manner in the next few decades is to use nuclear energy. The choice is between sustainability and ideology.

  3. Gareth is right to flag this up as a major issue. Years ago, many of us fought tooth and nail in the Hinkley C Public Inquiry and won the arguments hands down, in spite of a welter of distortions and lies from the government and the nuclear industry. Not a lot has changed in the meantime. I agree that it is impossible for a nuclear plant either here or anywhere else to be built without massive taxpayer involvement behind the scenes – we will all have to underwrite the enterprise whether we know it or not. The government will play with smoke and mirrors to hide the subsidies that keep the nuclear industry in business. Successive governments have always done this. The big selling argument will now be that nuclear installations produce power without adding to the planet’s CO2 load – that is nonsense, since the building of these plants is so energy intensive that we will see a huge INCREASE in emissions during construction, which will take decades to cancel out through the replacement of fossil-fuel stations which may close. Not a sensible scenario – quite apart from the obvious risks associated with hazardous radioactive materials.

  4. Fukushima was more up to date than every UK Nuclear plant apart from Sizewell B. Let’s be clear here that there were core breaches with the most radioactive material entering the enviroment and now contaminating the planet for tens of thousands of years. Please do not paint Fukishima as anything other than an unmitigated disaster. However, the argument over fossil fuel v nuclear is one that will become more difficult to call, the closer we get to a real energy shortage.

    Why can’t we take energy conservation and options such as tidal lagoons more seriously?

  5. Like David, I have changed my attitude form an anti-nuclear one to a now pro-nuclear. If we are really worried about safety, it is coal-fired power stations that we should be trying to close down as they kill 4,000 times more people per TWh generated than nuclear. Even Wind and Solar kill several times more people than nuclear – and that included Chernobyl (where 50 people have died, not the 9000 quoted by anti-nuclear bodies) three mile island and Fukushima.

    There were actually two nuclear sites at Fukushima – Dai-ichi and Dai-ni. Dai-ichi was older (60s design), Dai-ni built in the 80s. Both were hit by the same earthquake and tsunami – the Dai-ichi one caused all the problems (by the way – the explosions were hydrogen explosions, not nuclear explosions), while Dai-ni closed down passively and safely and is now back in production. George Monbiot explains why he has stopped worrying about nuclear following Fukushima here/

    Too much of the anti-nuclear argument is based on emotion – hysteria even – rather than facts. Likewise the renewable champions fail to explain how we can keep the light on. Renewable can’t even theoretically provide the capacity that we need, and in terms of satisfying peak demand, then they are totally useless – the wind might not be blowing and it might be (usually is) night time.

    Can’t we begin to discuss these things based on facts. If we don’t use nuclear, and we don’t want the lights to go out, and industry to close down, then the alternative is to replace nuclear with fossil fuels – which Germany have decided to do. The death toll resulting directly from this decision will be huge (-particular emissions causing lung disease) – and that is even before we count the effect of the resulting global warming from CO2 emissions.

    Don’t believe me? Read a fully referenced paper here. We conflate the horrors of the Hiroshima bomb with nuclear energy. That is a mistake unless we want to see civilisation unravel, and return to live, literally, in the dark ages.

  6. Germany have been very sly in proposing to close their own nuclear plants only to rely on French nuclear plants to supply them. I fully accept that there is a coherent argument for nuclear from the green lobby, but to claim that it was ok with Fukushima becuase it was a hydrogen expolsion is ridiculous. The fact is that the cooling system failed, the fuel rods overheated, the hydrogen concentration was created by this and at the end of the day, highly radioactive materials entered the environment as a consequence either of the explosion, the overheating or a combination. Of course prior to this catastrophic accident, the nuclear lobby cliamed that such an accidient was impossible.

    The difficulty with nuclear is that the risk cannot be eliminated, just reduced and even talk of all new systems as mentioned above does not deliver safe nuclear, as we will have to learn from accidients using the new process as we have done from existing gas cooled and water cooled systems.

    I agree that renewables should be honest about outputs and am frustrated when maximum figures rather than mean are often quoted. However, there is absolutely no excuse for not developing tidal energy yet still, the UK Government ignores the only source of renewables that is wholly predictable.

    Finally, conservation is the key to future targets, yet where are the radical policies to reduce our usage? We are instead choosing to drift into reliance on another generation of nuclear, rather than face changes in our liefstyle. I accept that without a concerted effort in reducing usage, nuclear is inevitable.

  7. Fukushima was hit by a tsuami following a marine earthquake of 8+ on the richter scale. Japan sits on a fault line where two tectonic plates meet and is notoriously seismically active. The UK is not near a fault and has not had a serious earthquake in living memory or, so far as I know, in recorded history. So why is Fukushima relevant to the UK case?

    Gareth Clubb makes some sensible, if debateable, points about the economics of the nuclear industry but his scaremongering about possible evacuations of Merthyr is contemptible. A readiness to stir up groundless fear in that way shows either complete unscrupulousness in argument or a hysterical lack of judgement. Either way we should not debase debate on a serious policy issue in that way.

  8. I agree that we should indeed base our arguments on facts, but there actually have been recorded storm waves up the Severn Estuary, that have previously drowned thousands. It is of course not all about waves but about managing risk and above all, waste.

  9. Of course this 20th Century technology is a serious threat, not only to human health and our environment but to our pockets as well. That’s as taxpayers as well as consumers. This industry would never survive without massive public subsidy. Fortunately, the wheels are beginning to fall off this juggernaut. Earlier this week, German engineering conglomerate, Siemens, announced it will no longer build or finance atomic power stations, only 2.5 years after entering into a global agreement with Russia’s Rosatom. Now, Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE), one of the two biggest UK utilities and second biggest electricity generator, is negotiating its exit from a consortium planning to build a nuclear power plant in the UK. They clearly know more than the politicians who chant outdated pro-nuclear mantra.

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