Anglesey’s Wylfa B last of the line

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 For many, such a tie-in, which is being rapidly superseded world-wide by renewable technologies, is fraught with huge problems.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.

Carl Clowes founded the Nant Gwrtheyrn Trust in 1978, is Honorary Consul for Lesotho and authored the PAWB Manifesto.

5 thoughts on “Anglesey’s Wylfa B last of the line

  1. A coal-fired power station (clean or not) at Wylfa would make no sense at all. Wales may have a plentiful supply of coal but it’s a long way from the north coast of Anglesey; it would have to be transported by train for hundreds of miles, or imported from overseas which, failing a significant upgrade of the port facilities at Holyhead would still require a significant train journey… and wherever the coal came from it would need a new railhead to reach the site. None of these problems are necessarily insurmountable but given it would require building pretty much everything from scratch it would make far more sense for any development to be closer to existing ports/coalfields.

    Anglesey (and Trawsfynydd, along with all other nuclear sites) was chosen for a nuclear station because the sparse population would reduce the collateral from any accident, not an issue with coal; Nuclear stations don’t have the transport needs of coal plants.

  2. Quite so. Nuclear is not that expensive compared to other low-carbon energy sources. The government “hopes” it can get offshore wind for £100 a MW hour. The promoters of the Severn Barrage want £150 a MW hour guaranteed for at least 25 years too, i.e. much the same as nuclear. The fact is that for all the boosting, all low-carbon sources are much more expensive than fossil fuels and likely to remain so for some time. Current market price for gas implies £40 a MW hour. If the Welsh government wants to punt a few hundred million why not research carbon capture? Burning coal and pumping the resultant CO2 back into the pit would use our own energy source, which is good for a few hundred years yet, without warming the planet – if we could do it.

  3. PS Why should anyone worry about Fukushima? I’ll start worrying when someone finds that Ynys Mon, like Japan is on a fault line between two tectonic plates and is therefore subject to frequent earthquakes and tsunamis. Since the UK is actually nowhere near a fault and gets few earthquakes and no strong ones, Fukushima is irrelevant to Wylfa B.

  4. The trouble with accidents/incidents is that they are unpredictable. The problem with nuclear is that an accident/incident can be truly catastrophic. The chances of a catastrophic nuclear incident is far, far, greater than winning the jackpot in the lottery. If one totals the number of nuclear reactors worldwide (approx. 437) and the major catastrophes (4 – if one includes Calder Hall) that have occurred then the odds are significant that one could happen in the UK, or more specifically on Ynys Môn. No other form of energy generation carries risks and consequences of such magnitude. I doubt if the UK government would be contemplating nuclear if past governments hadn’t prevaricated or delayed making the necessary and timely decisions on energy policy. As usual, this is another example of the failure of the incompetent Westminster/Whitehall system.

  5. I have to disagree with Dave when he says that no other form of energy generation carries the risks and consequences of such magnitude as nuclear. It is true that an accident in a nuclear facility is high scale and high profile, but what about all the smaller tragedies associated with other forms of generation such as coal? They all add up.

    What about the mine collapses and other incidents like Aberfan? Most mining takes place in the poorest parts of the world, usually involving child labour, and with little or no safety precautions – think the Valleys in the C19 but on a much larger scale. What about the chronic lung conditions endured by miners, usually without access to affordable medical treatment? They may not make the headlines, mainly because they are poor and live in the developing world, but they are real none the less.

    If a coal fired station were to be built on Anglesey don’t harbour any illusions about reopening Welsh coal mines, unless we are prepared to abandon all health and safety concern and send our children down the mines for a few pennies a day we can never produce coal at a ‘comparative’ price.

    It’s easy to point out the dangers of nuclear – mainly because there have been high profile incidents in the developed world – but don’t ignore the dangers associated with other forms of energy generation. Nothing is safe in life, but you have to consider all the issues when judging the risks.

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