Carl Clowes says the high electricity prices demanded by the nuclear industry are being overtaken by renewable techologies
Leanne Wood’s call at Plaid Cymru’s Spring Conference in Beaumaris for a plan ‘B’ on energy policy was echoed last week by a report from the UK Parliamentary Energy an Climate Change Select Committee, Building New Nuclear: the challenges ahead. This was highly critical of the Government for failing to have contingencies in place in the event that new nuclear power stations either do not get built at all, or at too slow a rate to fill gaps created by the decommissioning of many existing coal, gas and nuclear power stations.
The indications are that negotiations between EDF – the largely state-owned French company – and the UK Government, for a public subsidy to construct the new reactor at Hinkley Point are on a knife-edge. MPs support the Government’s use of ‘Contracts for Difference’ to help make new nuclear power stations easier to finance. However, they are concerned at the lack of transparency around the price negotiations between the Government and the nuclear industry. They argue that the new contracts must provide value for money for consumers and should not be offered at a price that is higher than other low-carbon sources of energy, such as offshore wind, which it is hoped will be around £100/MWh by 2020.
Current negotiations are floundering not just on cost but also on the period of the contract. A 25-year commitment by the UK Government would lead to inordinately high prices, in the order of £150/MWh, with consequential unacceptable energy bills for harassed UK consumers. Some commentators are now suggesting a 40-year commitment might be necessary for EDF to justify investment to their shareholders and keep the ‘Contracts for Difference’ at around £100/MWh. For many, such a tie-in, which is being rapidly superseded world-wide by renewable technologies, is fraught with huge problems. In short, it diverts important resources away from contemporary developments for a generation or more.
New nuclear would also produce increased levels of highly toxic radioactive waste at a time when there is no prospect of a solution to securing the existing nuclear waste legacy, reportedly taking up half of the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s annual budget. With media reports indicating that Iberdrola is now looking to pull out of its investment to build a new reactor near Sellafield, and no long-term policy for finding a solution to the waste problem, it now looks obvious that a ‘Plan B’ is needed more than ever.
The MPs’ advocacy of such a plan should be seen as a damning indictment of the Department of Energy and Climate Change. The UK Government has put too much emphasis on delivering new nuclear without considering in any detail the significant problems – in an austere financial environment – of the energy sector having enough capacity to build such reactors without recourse to huge public subsidy. One could, of course, apply the same criticism to the Welsh Government which, in recent times, has slavishly followed the Westminster line. Equally, similar criticisms apply to those in power in Ynys Môn.
However, a ‘Plan B’ should not be simply a ‘dash for gas’ or the commencement of a shale gas revolution, an energy source with many environmental risks. The Manifesto for Môn, published by People Against Wylfa B (PAWB) in 2012, gives direction both for energy and employment on the island using the wide range of indigenous resources available. This view is shared by a majority of people on the island, as witnessed by work done by social science researchers at Bangor University.
When will the politicians learn that there is no political mileage in supporting new nuclear? That was never more true than today as the industry fails to make an economic case and fails to deliver as it struggles in the final throes of its demise in the UK.
Hitachi’s interest in the Wylfa site – it has paid £700m for a few green fields site alongside an about-to-be disused ageing nuclear power station – seems perverse. Is the recent report from the 2010 XXI World Energy Congress in Montreal significant? Here Hitachi announced that they are “developing a full portfolio of new clean coal technologies aimed at further efficiency improvement, 90 per cent CO2 reduction, and near-zero emissions of other pollutants”. Could this be the technology that they will ultimately introduce at Wylfa? With a plentiful supply of coal, Wales may have to make some important decisions in the future.
In the meantime, PAWB urges the Governments in both Wales and Westminster to follow the example of Germany and many other European governments by:
- Putting its full political and financial support behind developing a wide range of renewable energy sources – including wind, solar, tidal, wave, and geothermal, district heating.
- Directing support into a concerted effort at demand management energy efficiency programmes.
- Encouraging increased investment into community-based decentralised microgeneration projects.
PAWB have been advocates for a Plan B – and not Wylfa B – for many years, although in reality it was always PAWB’s Plan A! PAWB’s plan will not only keep the lights on and stop electricity bills reaching ridiculous levels, but also secure the climate and bring hundreds of high quality jobs into an economy that desperately needs it.