There is a lot with which I can agree in the report (available here) on Energy Policy and Planning published last week by the National Assembly’s Environment and Sustainability Committee. I was surprised by their apparent faith in the future viability of Carbon Capture and Storage, however. That faith does not seem to be justified by the evidence at this stage, but that’s a comparatively minor disagreement. My real disagreement is with what they have to say about nuclear energy and in particular with the support of a majority on the Committee for the construction of Wylfa B.
I tend to agree with the views expressed by Gareth Clubb of Friends of the Earth in the report in the Western Mail, who referred to a lack of evidence presented to the committee which would support their conclusion that there are “strong economic arguments” for Wylfa B. It looks, rather, as though the supporters of nuclear energy on the committee had pretty much made their mind up before even considering the evidence.
It’s clear from the report’s wording that the committee sees nuclear energy as both a “low cost” form of energy and a “short term” solution. Unless they are using some very odd definitions of those terms, it’s hard to see how they can make either of them stand up.
The most optimistic estimates of timescales for new nuclear build suggest that it will be at least seven years before any new stations will be exporting power to the Grid. And given previous experience both in the UK and elsewhere, the most optimistic timescales are unlikely to be achieved. Short term solution it most definitely is not.
Back in the 1950s / 1960s, it was claimed by the proponents of nuclear energy that the electricity produced would be ‘too cheap to meter’. It wasn’t true then, and it’s not true now. The construction costs of new stations are enormous, as are the decommissioning costs, and it is clear that new stations will only be built in the UK if the government stumps up massive subsidies. The subsidies may be disguised in terms such as underwriting waste management costs, but subsidies they will be. Low cost? No chance.
The report’s conclusion that nuclear energy is an essential part of the energy mix is rather fatally undermined by the attempt to claim that it is only so if new stations are built at existing sites. This is simply verbal gymnastics; if nuclear is an essential part of the energy mix, then whether it is built at new or existing sites is irrelevant. And if the location outweighs other arguments, then it cannot be an essential part of the mix. (In any event, the proposed Wylfa B isn’t really ‘on an existing site’ anyway – it’s alongside it, which is why the consortium was busy purchasing additional land for the construction.)
Given that Wales is already a net exporter of electricity, and has a number of other new projects in the pipeline already, there is clearly no need in terms of Welsh energy policy for new nuclear capacity. Such capacity can only be aimed at consumers elsewhere. And that brings us back to the “strong economic arguments” to which the report refers.
Nowhere in the report are these arguments spelled out, but given that the overall economics of nuclear energy are open to debate, to say the least, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that this is simply a euphemism for the jobs which such a development would provide. It’s a pretty narrow view of the economics of nuclear energy.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with the idea that we should produce a surplus of some products and services for export in order to purchase those things which we cannot supply ourselves. That’s as true for electricity as it is for widgets. It’s a sensible approach and provides unemployment.
There’s a non-sequitur here though, if that’s the basis of the argument. There is no necessary or obvious link between a decision to over-produce electricity in order to provide gainful employment, and a requirement to build a new nuclear power station. In fact, quite the opposite – there are other, better ways of achieving the same objective.
The obvious one is investment in renewable capacity. Less obvious is investment in energy conservation and insulation – reducing our own demand is as effective a way of producing a surplus as is generating more. But the key thing is that either of those approaches would almost certainly generate more jobs at lower cost than the nuclear option. It could be argued, of course, that that’s all very well in theory, but where are the developers proposing to provide those alternative jobs on Ynys Môn?
It’s a valid question, but it betrays an underlying mindset that energy policy is really about government reacting to proposals put forward by private developers rather than driving policy on the basis of what’s right environmentally as well as economically. And that’s an abdication of responsibility for setting out an energy policy rather than merely tinkering with planning control policy.
One of the problems with the “jobs trumps all else” argument is that it ignores qualitative judgements about what sort of future we want to build in Wales. And it can be very open-ended. But there’s surely more to these decisions than that.
Wales is rich in potential for renewable energy, it gives us a huge advantage over a lot of other countries in decarbonising our economy. Ignoring that and pursuing a technology on which so many others are busy turning their backs, for the sake of a smaller number of jobs than we could gain by exploiting our advantages, shows a remarkable lack of vision for an institution which prides itself on having sustainability at its core.