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Wales is Westminster’s latest nuclear football

Johnson’s government has announced new nuclear reactors on Anglesey, but it’s home-grown renewables jobs for locals that are needed, that would ease fuel poverty and minimise harm to the environment, argues LINDA PENTZ GUNTER

BRITISH Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised Wales his government will deliver one, or even two, new nuclear reactors to the Wylfa site in Anglesey. 

The US firm, Westinghouse, is one of the companies potentially lined up for the contract to build them.

The fact that the government is even contemplating a deal with Westinghouse is astounding, given the company’s track record here in the US where two new nuclear plant projects bankrupted the company in 2017.

After ditching its South Carolina project and stranding ratepayers with the bill, Westinghouse continued to pursue two new reactors at Vogtle in Georgia — the only and likely last new full-scale nuclear power plant that will be built in the US.

When first approved in 2009, the two 1,117-megawatt Westinghouse AP1000 reactors in Georgia were expected to cost around £11 billion and begin operation in 2016 and 2017. 

The current cost estimate is more than £24bn and counting, with further delays announced earlier this year.

As for the South Carolina debacle, just last week, a judge approved a £49.5 million payout to 1.1 million disgruntled customers who had filed a class action lawsuit against the utility, Dominion Energy.

This came on the heels of a similar 2019 payout of £48.5m to South Carolina ratepayers. Four industry executives have either already been indicted or have pled guilty to criminal charges, after lying about construction progress and bilking their customers of more than £1.6bn.

All of this should send a strong warning to Wales against any such deal.

However, there is no reason to assume that any other company would fare better. After all, we have already seen German energy giants RWE and E.On, and then Japan’s Hitachi, run for the exits at Wylfa and Toshiba abandon Moorside in Cumbria.

Small modular reactors (SMR), also threatened for Wylfa and the defunct Trawsfynydd nuclear site in Snowdonia, are still designs on paper with unsolved safety and proliferation issues. 

SMRs won’t ever arrive in enough numbers, or in time, to make a dent in climate change. Nor would they provide immediate or long-term jobs.

That is because SMRs are neither about climate nor jobs but are meant to keep the flow of skilled personnel and technology going from the commercial to the military nuclear sector. 

In other words, it’s all about Trident, propulsion technology and nuclear weapons. And the export market.

As Jonathon Porritt wrote recently: “Supporting nuclear power is part of the massive cost that has to be paid for the UK to retain its nuclear weapons capability.”

There is, of course, a far better path for Wales, one that would actually do a service to its residents’ employment, energy, environmental and safety needs, priorities Westminster continues to ignore.

For the same investment in new nuclear plants, wind and solar projects would deliver far more energy far faster. For example, an investment of £4.7bn in nuclear power would deliver only 0.41 gigawatts of new nuclear-powered electricity compared with 6GW of onshore wind and solar PV for the same price, according to Stanford analyst, Mark Z Jacobson.

In addition to being cheaper and faster than nuclear power, renewable energy has proven to be one of the largest and fastest-growing employment sectors in any field, far outstripping the job promises made by companies bidding for nuclear construction.

Further, jobs in renewable energy would be sustainable and more broadly applicable to the skill-sets of locals. 

New nuclear projects largely provide elite jobs for the highly skilled and short-term construction jobs likely to bring in a predominantly outside workforce.

Welsh values — landscape, language, tradition and independence — do not line up well with nuclear power projects.

Creating home-grown jobs for locals that ease fuel poverty and minimise harm to the environment would respect the needs of the people of Wales while contributing both to the economy and to climate abatement.

Wales deserves better than to be, once again, the political football for an England-focused government that promises illusory nuclear white elephants over sound, secure and long-lasting renewable energy projects. 

Welsh politicians who care about their constituents should strongly oppose Johnson’s empty nuclear promises.

Linda Pentz Gunter is a writer based in Takoma Park, Maryland. She is the curator and editor of Beyond Nuclear International and the international specialist at non-profit membership organisation Beyond Nuclear (Twitter: @beyondnuclear).

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