‘It's not a choice between renewables and nuclear - we need both’ 

The demise of Wylfa Newydd is a loss for Wales, a setback for our national energy policy, and will lead to a brain drain. 

Image credit: Thomas Millot/Unsplash
Image credit: Thomas Millot/Unsplash
  • Updated: 03 April, 2019
  • Author: Sarah Jones, Principal Consultant at Salix Engineering Services
Eight years ago, the Great East Japan Earthquake occurred; an undersea, magnitude 9.1 earthquake which was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan and the fourth most powerful in the world.  

The resultant tsunami waves are thought to have reached 40m in height and travelled 10km inland. The fatalities from this extreme natural disaster are around 19,000.   

Yet the Japanese disaster most people in the UK think about is the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.  

Don’t misunderstand me; this nuclear disaster was the worst since Chernobyl in 1986 and should never have happened. The plant should have been resilient to these types of natural hazards. The resultant radiation pollution of the immediate area is extensive. 

But the Japanese government is carrying out the most exhaustive clean-up operation ever, and in September 2018 announced the first death that was caused by the radiation that was released in 2011.  

Sadly, this death toll will grow over time, but due to the precautions now being taken during the clean-up the final number is unlikely, in my view, ever to reach even 0.5% of the numbers who drowned in the tsunami. 
 

Different perceptions of risk 

At the time of the nuclear disaster, the French government advised its ex-pats in Japan to fly home immediately.

The advice from the UK government to its nationals was to stay put, because the risk of the plane crashing would be far higher and the radiation dose received during the flight would be thousands of times more than anything they would receive in Japan. 

Our perception of risk is just that; perception. Even the scientists and engineers among us are swayed by personal experience or what our society accepts as reasonable.  

We all drive cars faster than speed limits, but that car crash will never happen to us.   

We all breathe in pollution in cities, but don’t think about the long-term health consequences.   

We all know about global warming but can’t quite mobilise ourselves to change lifestyles now for something which is far in the future.   
 

The future is electric – but from what source? 

For me, the risk from nuclear power stations is miniscule compared with the effects of global warming. 

To solve global warming, we are pinning our hopes on electric cars, electric trains and to heat our homes by electric rather than gas boilers.   

But where is all this electricity going to come from?  

While watching Wales play at the opening match of the Six Nations rugby tournament this year, I checked Gridwatch.   

At 7pm on this dark Friday night in February, around 60% of our electricity was supplied by burning gas, with 20% wind and 12% nuclear.  

We have to stop burning gas, now, to have any hope of achieving our carbon reduction targets. 

It is not a choice between renewables and nuclear; we need both.  

In Germany this year, there was the first ever pro-nuclear demonstration I ever saw. People who wouldn’t normally protest marched in favour of restarting Germany’s nuclear plants, rather than the current policy of buying in electricity from other countries who burn gas.  
 

A setback for our energy policy, and for Wales 

So the announcement by Hitachi on 17 January 2019 that it was suspending its UK nuclear development programme is extremely worrying.  

Renewables UK stated that this “announcement risks blowing a hole in the government’s plans to meet our carbon targets”.   

The halt in the development of a new nuclear plant, Wylfa Newydd on Anglesey, means a setback not only for our national energy policy but also for the economy of Wales.   

I watched Channel 5 news that evening, and the reporter who covered the news was stood in front of the iconic Menai Bridge.  

He said that he’d been in the press conference on the day the UK government had decided not to back the Swansea Tidal Lagoon scheme.   

The government representative had played down the effect on Welsh business by saying “but you’ve still got Wylfa Newydd”.  

Both schemes are needed.   

The tidal lagoon is an important loss leader for this emerging technology and should have received government backing exactly as offshore wind turbines were heavily subsidised to begin with.  

Now the turbine industry has advanced significantly and the costs have dropped. The Swansea tidal lagoon would have made Wales a centre of excellence and would have led to more tidal energy schemes around our coastline. 
 

Wales' brain drain

The demise of Wylfa Newydd is bad news for the skilled workforce who live in the area.   

The existing Wylfa nuclear station stopped generating only two years ago, not due to any safety concerns, but purely because the fuel ran out. Fuel manufacture stopped some years before because no one expected these stations to run for as long as they have.  

Wylfa had an exemplary operational record and could have continued for many years. The workforce should have passed their precious technical skills on to the next generation of workers at Wylfa Newydd, but now are facing the choice between retirement or moving out of the area. 
 

The UK's uncertainty hinders our prospects

The political will required to ensure the construction of the new generation of nuclear plants is missing in the UK.  

We tempt foreign companies to come to Britain and spend considerable sums of money investing in these projects, on the prospect of future payback.   

And yet we don’t give them the certainty they need, that we won't change our minds.  

The Japanese government had backed Hitachi with hard cash and were, by all accounts, baffled as to why our government wouldn’t take a stake in its own national infrastructure.   

In the end, Hitachi spent nearly £3bn with no guarantee that the project would go ahead, and so sadly took the decision to suspend work.  

I truly hope that once the current uncertainty in our political affairs calms down, the UK government will realise it needs to provide greater confidence for developers like Hitachi.  

We must stop burning gas, now. Otherwise we’re sleep walking this planet into oblivion. 
 

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