Plaid Cymru’s leadership contest has exposed once again the difficulties the party faces over the question of nuclear energy, a subject on which I’ve often commented on this blog. Syniadau has posted a number of times on the issue in recent weeks, concentrating on the divergence between the views of the party as decided by the membership, and those of the current, and one potential future, leader on the other.
The debate which follows is often confused because there are two separate issues involved. The first is the question of whether or not nuclear power is the right way to go; the second is about the problems of a party leader / potential leader unable to accept the party’s views on the issue; and they are two very different issues. I’m sticking to the former of those today.
What is clear is that Wales has no direct need of nuclear energy. We can produce all the electricity we need – and more – from entirely renewable sources. It’s not just me saying that; the One Wales Government produced an excellent strategy confirming that, and all of Labour’s and Plaid’s AMs signed up to that. And, as far as I’m aware, it isn’t really in dispute.
What we can’t do, though, (and this is likely to be true of any small country) is to produce all that electricity at the time that we need it. Producing the total number of Mwh over a year as a whole is not the same as producing all the Mw we need at any given time.
Some have used that fact in an attempt to argue that we cannot therefore depend solely on renewables, and also need either nuclear energy or fossil-fuel energy as a backup. However, that isn’t the only answer. The alternative solution is that a renewables-based country like Wales needs to be able to export surpluses at some times and import at other times to replace the deficit (and that is the proposal put forward by Leanne Wood in her paper on energy).
The problem, for a country which wishes to be entirely renewables-based, is in controlling what the source of that imported electricity is. I’m convinced that, by linking grids together across Europe and using a variety of renewable sources rather than wind alone, Europe can free itself of any need for conventional / nuclear power stations over a period if it plans so to do. In that context, inputting into the grid at least as much electricity as we withdraw means that Wales could legitimately claim to be entirely renewables-based, the position which our Government has said it wants to be in.
There is a complication though. What happens if one or more countries in Europe decide that they will continue with a conventional/ nuclear programme? This is the argument that some have used about the German decision to move away from nuclear power – since their grid is linked to that of France, and since France has decided to continue with its nuclear programme, isn’t Germany effectively still depending on nuclear power, but on outsourcing its production to France?
By the same token, if England decides on a new nuclear programme, even if no stations are built in Wales, can we claim that we are not dependent on that nuclear energy? I think that we can. What we would be dependent on is electricity from somewhere else; how that electricity is produced is beyond our control. We might be using nuclear-produced electricity (we can’t easily pick and choose which bits of electricity we’re using), but it is the existence of that electricity on which we would be dependent, not on how it’s produced.
This is more than mere semantics. England, like Wales, could (if it wishes) choose an entirely renewables-based future. As long as that is true, and as long as Wales produces at least as much electricity in a year as we consume, I don’t believe that the decisions of another country as to how they produce their electricity can legitimately be said to undermine our claim of renewable self-sufficiency.
What would undermine that claim would be permitting, let alone welcoming, the construction of further nuclear or other non-renewable plant in Wales.