‘Great English Nuclear’: should Wales be involved?
It’s almost a year since Boris Johnson’s announcement that a new nuclear power station will be built at Wylfa, Ynys Môn.
‘Wylfa Newydd’ is part of the proposed new nuclear scheme, Great British Nuclear (GBN).
But GBN, if it goes ahead, will be the third generation of nuclear reactors in the UK.
Let’s look back at the past two generations of nuclear power stations in the UK, and see how they’ve performed, and ask if Wylfa Newydd is really the boon for Cymru that the Tories claim it is.
As Johnson made his Wylfa announcement in April 2022, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) was busy finalising a report on the economic performance of Britain’s previous, second generation of reactors.
The PAC report, entitled ‘The Future of Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors [AGRs],’ was released just a month after Johnson’s announcement. It revealed:
- how these retirement-age AGR reactors have been a poor investment, not serving Britain well economically;
- how the estimated cost of decommissioning them had nearly doubled since 2004, and would likely climb further;
- and how these astronomical, escalating costs of decommissioning the AGR sites (now at £23.5 billion) is being put onto UK tax-payers.
EDF Energy, the state-owned French company which bought these AGR reactors from the UK government in 2009, recorded just over a billion pounds in profit last year from Britain’s reactors.
Tax-payers will pay clean-up costs because, to sweeten the 2009 deal for the French, Westminster agreed its own Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) would be responsible for clean-up when the reactors reached their use-by date.
The two nuclear licensed sites in Wales, Trawsfynydd and Wylfa, historically produced electricity from nuclear.
They were part of the first generation of British nuclear reactors, called Magnox reactors.
Both were closed; both are still in the process of being decommissioned. And decommissioning the Magnox sites takes ages.
Safely decommissioning Trawsfynydd will take almost a century from the time of its closure (1991-2083-ish); and after shutting down in 2015, Wylfa won’t be fully done until early next century.
The PAC had previously reported on the decommissioning of these Magnox stations, finding that “uncertainty of the condition of the sites and how to approach the decommissioning task” had led to increases in estimated costs, which were in the billions of pounds.
Wylfa Newydd is included in the eight new nuclear power stations planned as part of the GBN project. More sites in Wales could be chosen in the future. But does Wales really need this?
All eight proposed sites will be located in England and Wales. None in Scotland.
As some have suggested, the absence of any proposed sites in Scotland might be due to the Scots having used their control of off-shore gas supplies as bargaining leverage.
The Scottish government has firmly said no to nuclear.
Welsh Labour, on the other hand, is keen, despite how this would complicate a future Welsh independence, and despite the clean-up bill it would leave future generations when it comes time to decommission these sites.
Wind and solar deliver at about half the price of nuclear. According to the Institute of Welsh Affairs, even with additional spending to support a smarter grid, it’s unlikely significant development in nuclear energy will result in cheaper energy bills in the long run, compared with renewables.
And since more than 80% of onshore wind is going to come from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, Wales will inevitably be building more wind farms anyway.
The Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult has advised that there could be as much as 50GW of electricity capacity available in the Celtic Sea alone by 2030, whereas the Great British Nuclear project is expected to deliver only half that (up to 24GW) by 2050.
And, though the AGR reactors provide about 15% of Britain’s energy at the moment, the UK government has said it’s “confident” supply will cope if some of the older stations are closed before the new GBN ones are built!
So, what good reason could there be for not investing the money in renewable energy projects instead?
Crucial for Wales?
Conservative Ynys Môn MP Virginia Crosbie has said: “The formation of Great British Nuclear is absolutely crucial if we want to get all of those jobs and investment into Wales.”
But exactly how many Welsh jobs are we talking about? We’re not talking large-scale nuclear power plants here. These new reactors are prefabricated transportable modules, measuring about 16 metres by 4 metres.
Being smaller, the new reactors might be cheaper to decommission; but the NDA estimates the total clean-up bill for all legacy nuclear sites will cost a gob-smacking £132 billion over 120 years — so why put even more on the tab?
In light of the above, arguments about economic gains for Wales from Welsh nuclear power stations don’t add up. There’s just no way in which GBN is “absolutely crucial” for Wales, so why is it being sold to us as such?
Hayden Williams is a New Zealand based journalist, a member of Plaid Cymru, and a member of the New Zealand Labour Party.
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