Green shoots from the embers of nuclear policy?

Green shoots from the embers of nuclear policy?

The project to build the Wylfa B nuclear power station on Anglesey looks like it is coming to an end. A final decision on planning consent has been deferred until 31 December, but the withdrawal of Hitachi appears to be terminal.

This is not the first time that the main contractor has pulled out: Hitachi were themselves the rescuers in 2012, when German utility groups RWE and Eon decided they could not afford to proceed with the project.  Eight years on, Wylfa B has absorbed £2 billion, a large chunk of which is public money.

In 2018, the Welsh Government decided to shelve the proposed Swansea tidal lagoon and back Wylfa B, on the basis that nuclear offered better value for money and was a tried and tested technology.

Sadly for the taxpayer, it seems to have been tested all the way to destruction as an economically viable energy source, quite apart from any doubts as to its long-term implications for the environment.

Ironically, Hitachi’s decision comes just a few months after the issue of a report by Marine Energy Wales that sees major opportunities for Wales to develop as a leader in marine energy, with an export market that could be worth £76bn by 2050. So why, just two years ago, did nuclear win out over the tidal lagoon?

One reason is the timescale over which energy projects are assessed. Often returns are compared over a period of 30-35 years. This might seem like a long time, not least to politicians operating on 5-year election cycles, but that is almost as long as nuclear plants are expected to last. For example, the two Wylfa Magnox reactors, that Wylfa B was intended to replace, started operating in 1971 and were shut down in 2012 and 2015 respectively.

By contrast, technology that generates power from water has proved to last far longer, with numerous examples around the world of hydro power plants still in operation more than 100 years after they first started production. The technology involved is durable and safe, in stark contrast with nuclear, where the cost of decommissioning alone runs into hundreds of millions of pounds (and, like the cost of building them in the first place, typically spirals upwards from initial estimates). In an era where low-carbon solutions are needed more than ever, there is frustration amongst those that remember when nuclear power represented the pinnacle of energy achievement. The story now seems to be one of cost overruns, cancellations, and a lack of any coherent industry vision for the future.

Perhaps the demise of Wylfa B will prove to be a turning point in how we assess our energy options. Offshore wind and solar have already transitioned from fringe to mainstream, and it’s easy to envisage energy from wave and tidal power going the same way if judged over the extended periods of operation they promise. As Dr Doug Parr, the chief scientist at Greenpeace, puts it, “The government’s energy policy is in tatters, but this is the opposite of a disaster. We could have locked ourselves into reliance on an obsolete, unaffordable technology, but we’ve been given the chance to think again and make a better decision.”