Why the UK Government mustn’t trade tidal power for nuclear

Wylfa Power Station. Picture: Andrew Woodvine (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Rhun ap Iorwerth, Assembly Member for Ynys Môn

My mother-in-law used to work in the canteen at Wylfa. I have friends, neighbours and acquaintances who’ve worked there on the nuclear side of things, others in administrative roles or engineering apprenticeships.

That’s been the Wylfa reality on Anglesey throughout my life. It’s been part of life.

That’s not to say there’s been no controversy – it’s a nuclear power station, after all! I have every respect for people who take a principled stand against nuclear.

They can point to the rare but significant nuclear accidents, or to unanswered questions over disposal of waste as evidence to argue that nuclear is never the answer.

In fact, I’m quite sure I speak for most people on the island when I say that I’d rather that the business of that large employer in the north of the island wasn’t nuclear.

I’ve always thought that the costs of nuclear don’t really add up. There’s real complexity to it, not least with the waste, and we just wouldn’t need nuclear were we more innovative.

“Do you favour nuclear or renewables?” I was asked once in a BBC interview.

I paused. Silly question, I thought.

“Renewables,” I said. “100%.”

But in the case of Wylfa it’s not a matter of ‘take your pick’ between 1000 nuclear jobs at Wylfa or 1000 renewables jobs.

Whilst there are some hugely exciting marine projects underway off the Anglesey coast, they are smaller in scale. The major and more immediate investment on the table locally is of the nuclear variety.

People have often danced around the Wylfa issue with me, because they guess it’s such a difficult one for me and for Plaid Cymru.

The truth is that I’ve always been comfortable enough talking about it, because I’m pretty clear in my mind where I stand on the issue. And it’s not black and white.

Skills

During my first election campaign in 2013 I summed up my position as giving a “clear, positive message” on Wylfa.

I talked openly about making it work for Anglesey, and getting the best possible deal for my constituents.

This means seeing that everything possible is done to mitigate for the serious disruption of the construction phase, and ensuring our young people have the right skills to be first in line for jobs.

I took the position of being pro-Wylfa B, fighting to ensure Anglesey’s young people and communities would benefit – knowing the alternative was to be “anti-Wylfa B”, to tell those young Wylfa engineers who want a continued career in nuclear locally ‘I’ll do what I can to stop you getting those jobs’.

Five years on, and it’s been frustrating in many ways. The skills agenda isn’t where it should be, and those interested in a range of areas – from tourism, the Welsh language and housing to the NHS and policing – have voiced frustration at various stages about progress.

There’s also frustration at a lack of proactivity from developers in putting pressure on National Grid to sink or bury their cables.

Throughout, I’ve maintained a positive working relationship with the developer, because if it happens, I want to try to ensure I’m as influential as I can be to keep local matters on the Wylfa agenda.

Well, it seems we’re getting to the crunch point. Wylfa had been a matter of seeking private investors to take the risk of building a nuclear power station in return for a fixed price for the power.

Now it seems that’s all changed. UK Government, we’re told, is gearing up to be the backstop for the whole project.

Central

We could take the purely local view and decide ‘it’s OK for us on Anglesey, because we get the jobs’, or we can also think more widely at what committing so many billions of pounds in public spending will mean for what else Government can afford to do.

This week, we expect a taster of what it means… and if all speculation is true, I don’t like it one bit.

We’re told that the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon will hear this week that it’s too expensive, and so UK Government will not back it. I find this utterly depressing, and I believe it’s very bad news for us in Wales, including here on Anglesey.

The Tidal Lagoon is a new concept – building a sea wall to hold back the tide and channel it through electricity-generating turbines. Expensive?

Yes, as a pioneering first project. But all manner of reviews and inquiries have judged it to be a fantastic world-leading opportunity.

Get it right in Swansea, and this is technology that Wales could export to the world, whilst a network of Lagoons around our own coastline could resolve our own power consumption needs (and help with flood defences, too).

We on Anglesey are innovating in marine energy now, and the opportunity for Wales as a whole to build up a head of steam in this sector could only be good for us.

In a competitive world, Wales could build real expertise, and Anglesey – already home to Bangor University’s SEACAMS centre for applied marine sciences in Menai Bridge – can look forward to playing a central role in that.

Pioneering

We often talk about the need for an energy ‘mix’. There are strong arguments (because of lack of innovation to date) that we need one more generation of large-scale nuclear power stations.

(There should certainly not be a Wylfa ‘C’, although there is, I believe, a case for investigating the potential of small modular reactors, but that’s for another article).

But that has to happen alongside the development of bulk renewables … now! And that’s what the Tidal Lagoon offers.

Keith Clarke, the Chairman of Tidal Lagoon (Swansea Bay) Plc wrote this week that he backed public investment in Wylfa, purely to fulfil the power needs of the UK, and provide security of supply.

“We need nuclear,” he argues, “at a minimum to replace, partially, the aging existing fleet.”

However, he argues that investing in tidal is “the perfect foil” to counter the inherent risk (in terms of cost and capacity) of nuclear.

The turbine technology is proven, he says. It’s the application that’s innovative. Swansea is the perfect full scale ‘trial’ he says, and whilst any ‘first’ is likely to be costly, he’s certain that “larger tidal lagoons will generate cheaper electricity as sure as night follows day.”

Renewable, low carbon baseload power generation – bulk power – will be a reality.

But the UK Government wants none of it, it seems. It will not invest in innovation in Wales. Some suggest a Wylfa announcement at the same time is meant to sweeten the pill, but there is no acceptable trade-off of one against the other.

I will continue to represent my constituents, and fight for the interest of our communities and jobs here on Anglesey as I always have done.

Wylfa can’t be supported at any cost – the vast majority of people on Anglesey will agree to that, I’m sure – so I’ll fight alongside others to ensure that the promises made, for example on local employment, are delivered.

I will also, however, champion the broader environmental and economic interests of Wales by stating clearly that ploughing billions of pounds of public funds into nuclear cannot be allowed to hold back investment in the pioneering and game-changing renewable technologies we need for the future.

That, it seems, is what this innovation-free UK Government is doing – with Welsh Government failing to propose a genuine alternative energy plan – and I fear that Wales as a whole will pay a heavy price.

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