Sunday, 25 January 2009

Tins and Labels

Glyn Davies seems to have got a bit over-excited in his reaction to the statement that Ieuan Wyn Jones made after the news that Wylfa is on a list of four potential sites for a new nuclear power station. As far as I can see, all Ieuan actually said was "There are job implications here, but what we need to do is see whether a company is interested and then we need to consider that very carefully". Turning that into "giving a new plant at Wylfa his full backing", is stretching a point, even for a poitician. No real surprise to see Peter Black echoing Glyn's view on this.

It's an even bigger jump to suggest that if Ieuan were to support a new plant at Wylfa, that somehow makes Plaid a 'pro-nuclear' party. I can see how Tory and Lib Dem politicians (and Labour ones too, come to that) might make that wild jump though. After all, for those parties, 'policy' is whatever the leader says it is, and if the leader changes his or her mind, the whole party follows suit.

Things don't work that way in Plaid. Plaid's policy is decided democratically by the membership, not by the leader. And unless and until the membership decide to change policy, Plaid remains opposed to building any new nuclear power stations. I don't expect that to happen anytime soon; I expect Plaid to continue its opposition to nuclear power – whatever position Ieuan may adopt in relation to a new plant at Wylfa when full details eventually become known.

I suppose that I can't blame political opponents for seeing an opportunity for a bit of point-scoring, but there is a danger that point-scoring obscures what we should really be debating, which is whether we should be building new nuclear power stations or not.

The arguments have definitely changed in recent years, as the potential consequences of climate change become clearer, and it is right that we should always be willing to re-evaluate the arguments for and against in the light of changed circumstances – but for my part, I think that the arguments against are still very much stronger than the arguments in favour.

I do not dismiss lightly the arguments which some environmentalists are putting forward in favour of the nuclear option. I heard Sir John Houghton speak on climate change in Narberth a year or two ago, and he made a number of telling points – not the least of which is that nuclear power stations might actually be quite a good way of using all the plutonium which has been manufactured and stockpiled for nuclear weapons. That's an attractive thought, of course.

And there is no doubt that, during the operational lifetime, the carbon cost of electricity from a nuclear power station is extremely low, one of the key reasons why nuclear is being pushed as a 'clean' option. The problem is, of course, that it's not the whole story. To assess how clean any source of power is, one needs to know the carbon cost of building and decommissioning the stations, the carbon cost of producing the raw fuel, and the carbon cost of handling the waste. We don't yet know the carbon costs of decommissioning nuclear power stations – and since we don't yet know what to do with the waste, we don't know the carbon costs of handling that, either. In summary, that means that no-one really knows the full carbon costs of nuclear power – which gives an interesting context to the claims about its 'cleanness'. I'd be confident that the total carbon cost is less than burning fossil fuels, but the certainty with which it is promoted as a green fuel is not as unchallengable as some might suggest.

There are a number of arguments against building new nuclear power stations, but for me, the issues surrounding nuclear waste remain the killer argument against use of the technology. Because, to date, no-one has found a satisfactory way of disposing of the highly radio-active waste produced by these plants. The 'default' option is to keep it somewhere 'safe' and guard it - for potentially thousands of years. It's hardly a very sound environmental basis for an energy policy.

The lack of clarity over how waste is to be handled also challenges the economics of nuclear energy. If no-one knows what we're going to do with the waste, how can anyone know what the electricity is going to cost? The answer is that all costings effectively make one of two unstated assumptions. They either include an element of cost for waste treatment and disposal, and assume that whatever number has been used will be enough for whatever disposal method is eventually selected - or else they assume that someone else - the taxpayer - will pick up the cost. Or maybe even a bit of both.

So, as far as I am concerned, nuclear is not the answer. We need to start by reducing the total demand for electricity. That is a completely achievable objective, and energy conservation measures will do more to help fight emissions than any nuclear power station. They'll probably create more jobs too. And above all, we need to be turning to renewable energy, as Plaid have been saying for years.

There is one point on which I do agree with Glyn, however – and that is that the jobs argument is not the strongest argument for a new nuclear station. In fact, I'd go further, and say it's completely the wrong argument. I understand that it may not look that way from Anglesey, of course. The island was recently listed as having the lowest GDP per head in Britain, and that without the redundancies they are now facing. I can understand why some might feel that they have no choice. But should we really accept jobs at any price?

The Assembly Government has recently produced two excellent strategies – one on energy policy and the other on greening the economy. I have previously expressed my own doubts as to whether the Assembly actually has the powers to implement the strategies, but I have no doubt that they are good. Neither of them suggests that we should be building any new nuclear power stations. In that context, welcoming – or even simply accepting – developments which run counter to the agreed strategies would be to render those strategies utterly meaningless, and I am confident that the Assembly Government will recognise that in its own response to any proposals.

So, if Plaid policy and the policy of the Government of which Plaid is a part both remain opposed to any new nuclear power stations, how on earth can anyone claim that one member – even if that member is the leader - holding an alternative viewpoint makes Plaid a pro-nuclear party? It's nonsense, and both Glyn and Peter know it.


Peter Black said...

I agree with you on nuclear power John, unfortunately with regards to policy Plaid are judged by the criteria by which they judge others.

You only have to look at the comments on my blog on neurosurgery and what was said by Plaid politicians to see that your party has sought to stick a policy on the Welsh Liberal Democrats because of the views of one AM even though the party has no policy on this matter.

Like you our policy is made by members not by individual leaders or spokespeople. In the circumstances I think I was justified in having a bit of fun at Plaid's expense.

John Dixon said...


"...I think I was justified in having a bit of fun at Plaid's expense"

As I said in my original post:

"I suppose that I can't blame political opponents for seeing an opportunity for a bit of point-scoring..."

So I won't argue with you on that one - not this time, anyway.

But I will continue to make it crystal clear where Plaid as a party stands on the issue of nuclear power. The label on my tin matches the contents.

Glyn Davies said...

John - are you telling us that Ieuan Wyn Jones is not giving his support to a new nuclear power station at Wylfa. If he is not giving it his full backing, or is ambivilent about it, he really ought to make that clear to the people of Ynys Mon, who currently think that he is.

I agree with you that the strongest case against nulear power is that the Government does not have a satisfactory policy on dealing with radioactive waste. The idea that in decades hence it should be buried deep in the earth, and retained in storage until a site is identified does not seem good enough to me. But the 'killer fact' which caused me to change my position on this issue is that Government procrastination in developing a credible energy policy has made a nuclear response to concerns about energy shortage and security inevitable. And it is better to plan a nuclear policy rather than panic when the lights go out.

John Dixon said...


"are you telling us that Ieuan Wyn Jones is not giving his support to a new nuclear power station at Wylfa"

I'm saying that that isn't actually what he said last week, no more, no less.

Your point about energy shortage and security is a good one. I'll admit that if the only choice was between fossil fuels and nuclear energy, then, for all the reservations that I have, it would be hard to argue for a non-nuclear policy.

But those aren't the only choices; there is an alternative based around reduced consumption and use of a mix of renewables.

Procrastination there has been - aided and abetted, I'm afraid, by opposition to any and every renewable scheme. But even that doesn't make nuclear inevitable. Energy saving measures and a range of small to medium size renewable schemes can still deliver faster than a new generation of nuclear power stations, which, even if there was agreement to build them today, would take years to come on stream.