New nuclear power stations in Wales would have a big impact on our constitutional future – so why the lack of debate?
Ifan Morgan Jones
Boris Johnson delivered a killer blow to the possibility of a new nuclear power station on Wylfa last week by promising that it would be built.
With the Prime Minister’s record on the bridge to Ireland, ‘Boris island airport’, HS2, the London garden bridge and a myriad other half-baked and yet undelivered projects, nothing seems to be the kiss of death for a big infrastructure project like Johnson’s backing.
In all seriousness, however, whatever the UK Government’s energy reviews plans, it seems almost unavoidable that Wales will see at least one if not a handful of new nuclear power plants built over the next few decades.
There are currently plans for no fewer than five nuclear reactors in Wales, with US nuclear company Westinghouse, a consortium led by Rolls-Royce, and a company backed by an investor in Elon Musk’s businesses all showing an interest in building reactors both big and ‘modular’.
And perhaps most curiously of all, there is no real national debate developing around whether we want to revisit this most controversial of technologies in Wales, only a decade after the original Wylfa shut down.
As Welsh Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State David TC Davies noted on Sunday Supplement, there has been a remarkable amount of political unity on the question of new nuclear power, with the Labour Welsh Government actively pushing for development at both Wylfa and Trwsfynydd.
The only major Welsh party leader to ring a note of caution has been Plaid Cymru’s Adam Price who has said that nuclear would be the “wrong answer” and that renewables should be the way forward.
But Plaid Cymru’s de facto policy seems to be to face both ways on the issue, with the party’s Anglesey council leader Llinos Medi actively supportive of Wylfa and Dafydd Wigley saying much the same in the House of Lords.
Ball and chain
But one major issue that has not been discussed in any great detail is the impact of nuclear on Wales’ constitutional future. Building, running and decommissioning nuclear power plants is hugely expensive, with the original Wylfa alone set to cost £2bn just to wind down.
In a UK context, the decision to build new nuclear power plants arguably makes financial and foreign policy sense as it may be the only way to reach net-zero while ensuring a regular and reliable source of power that does not come with great political complications.
Wales however already produces twice as much energy as it uses and in the context of an independent or financially autonomous nation, more jobs alone could be scant reward for the long-term cleanup costs.
Indeed, if Wales were to have one or even multiple nuclear power plants it could become a very effective argument against Welsh independence or even any further financial autonomy. ‘How is Wales going to pay for Wylfa B?’
There would also be questions over the nuclear expertise to run existing plants, and where the nuclear waste would be stored. It is currently karted off to the Sellafield facility in west Cumbria. England would be unlikely to want to keep receiving it if Wales did break away.
Any new nuclear plant would also complicate things politically for any breakaway state. One little remarked upon motive for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was that the latter has four nuclear power plants, all built while part of the Soviet Union, that feed Russia’s electricity grid.
It is no surprise therefore that the SNP, who have realistic hopes of Scottish independence within the next decade or so, have completely refused to allow any new nuclear plants to be built there at all. And it can’t just be concerns about jobs that motivate Labour to put huge political pressure on them to do so. A new plant would be a significant ball and chain tying Scotland to the UK.
What to do about the Trident nuclear submarines and the jobs they bring is already a headache for those advocating for Scottish independence but this is one form of nuclear that could not be sent swimming down the Clyde.
From a Welsh perspective, there are clearly pros and cons to new nuclear power. But whatever option is chosen, it would be a long term decision. If Wylfa B was built it might well be the end of the century before it was decommissioned.
The name of the UK Government’s nuclear project, ‘Great British Nuclear’, is a clue that to a large extent this is a project that intends to bind the UK together for good. Wales may want to think more carefully about whether it wants to make such a long term commitment.
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