Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Decision in a year on any nuclear role for Wales

January 11, 2008


WALES will not know for about a year whether it has a role to play in the Government’s plans for a new generation of nuclear power stations.

Wales’ only operating nuclear station, Wylfa on Anglesey, is due to shut in 2010, and Business Secretary John Hutton said yesterday decisions on where ministers want to see the new plants built would not be taken until next year.

There is huge local support for a new reactor on the island, with 1,500 people employed at the current site. But many Welsh politicians are vehemently against any expansion of the civil nuclear programme.

Unlike the Scottish Executive, the Assembly Government cannot block any new nuclear reactor. Welsh Secretary Peter Hain, a long-standing sceptic on nuclear power whose position has shifted slightly, said yesterday he hoped the nuclear industry in Wales could be “confined to Wylfa”, and called for more investment in renewable energy technology.

Announcing the Government’s widely-expected fresh commitment to nuclear power, Mr Hutton told MPs that, with atomic energy accounting for 20% of Britain’s electricity but all but one station due to close by 2023, the case for building new reactors was compelling.

But he ruled out any subsidy for the industry, saying new nuclear stations had to be commercially viable. New reactors will be built and run by the private sector rather than by the state, and a new independent body will oversee the financial aspects of storing nuclear waste and the costs of decommissioning, he said.

A Strategic Siting Assessment, to identify where new reactors should be built, will take until 2009 to complete, Mr Hutton said.

“Nuclear power has provided us with safe and secure supplies of electricity for half a century,” said Mr Hutton. “It is one of the very few proven low-carbon technologies which can provide baseload electricity... nuclear power can help us meet our twin challenges, ensuring secure supplies and tackling climate change.”

Anglesey Council has admitted it faces a “challenge” in persuading the nuclear industry to build a new facility at Wylfa.

Even a swift decision would mean a new plant being opened in around 2020, leaving a question mark over the local economy.

Mr Hain said, “As someone who has long pressed both inside and outside Government for a big expansion of renewable energy in Wales and right across Britain, I have nevertheless become convinced that in order to keep the power on, the nuclear energy option must be available.

“In practice in Wales this could be confined to the Wylfa site as a replacement for the existing nuclear power station.”

Mr Hain said he did not see a case for any other new nuclear power station in Wales.

Nevertheless the Government is braced for opposition to the policy from within its own ranks. Paul Flynn, the Labour MP for Newport West, said yesterday, “Why on earth are we repeating the nuclear folly of past years when one power station was 15 years late, [and there were] vast cost overruns of £75bn in managing the waste?

“The new thinking on waste is to bury it in a hole in the ground which was the answer 40 years ago.”

But Ynys Môn MP Albert Owen said the “case for nuclear has been made”. He said, “Wylfa has the skills base, the expertise and the infrastructure. It has the support of local politicians, the Welsh Affairs Committee and many in the local community.”

Friends of the Earth Cymru’s Gordon James said new nuclear stations were “simply not the answer” while John Matthews from the Wales Green Party said the decision to press ahead with nuclear generation was “a dangerous, irresponsible and costly distraction from the real challenge of tackling climate change”.

A Welsh Assembly Government spokesman said, “We will want to study the statement before commenting further. The question of particular sites does not arise in this statement and it would be premature to speculate about future site locations at this stage.”

The Government’s decision to press ahead with a new generation of nuclear power stations won’t go down well with everyone, as Tomos Livingstone explains

Perhaps it was appropriate that when John Hutton paused in the middle of his parliamentary statement on nuclear power while the Speaker dealt with a back- bench heckler, the dissenting voice turned out to be Welsh.

Newport West MP Paul Flynn was told he “must be quiet”. But there’s little chance of that – and he isn’t the only one with doubts about the Government’s policy.

Back in 1982 Mr Flynn, then a councillor, helped organise the famous “nuclear-free Wales” declaration. In February that year Clwyd County Council became the final Welsh authority to pass an anti-nuclear resolution.

Much of that opposition to civil nuclear power is as fresh today as it was 26 years ago. Mr Flynn and four other Welsh MPs have signed parliamentary motions against nuclear power, and the Liberal Democrats are opposed.

One of the main voices against nuclear power in the Cabinet was Peter Hain, although the Welsh Secretary has decided keeping the Wylfa nuclear station on Anglesey open is the right response – provided it comes with increased investment in renewable energy.

The Assembly Government also “sees no case” for new nuclear build, although with Wylfa in Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones’ constituency, you can see a caveat coming. Mr Hain’s formulation that nuclear in Wales should be “confined to Wylfa” sounds like it will become the position at both ends of the M4.

Unlike Scotland, where the Edinburgh executive is the planning authority and is flatly rejecting new nuclear build, the Assembly Government cannot stand in the way. But even the faintest possibility of Cardiff Bay getting the same powers as Edinburgh may put off investors.

Opposition to nuclear power is likely to be vocal – outside Anglesey – and while there’s no chance of the Government being blown off course, Mr Flynn and others will ensure this is a lively and impassioned debate.

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