Pumping £5bn into a new plant in north Wales as a way to fight climate change is a solution at odds with the rest of the world
For once, ministers have put their money where their mouth is – into taking another stab at nuclear power. This week the business secretary, Greg Clark, announced plans to pump £5bn into a new nuclear power station at Wylfa in north Wales. It was a reversal of a longstanding Conservative policy not to underwrite nuclear construction. So why the sudden enthusiasm? And what does Clark know that the rest of the world does not?
For almost everywhere else, governments and corporations are pulling the plug on nuclear. Even in a world fearful of climate change, in which nations have promised to wean themselves off fossil fuels by the mid-century, almost no one wants to touch nuclear.
Germany will be nuclear-free by 2022. France – once Europe’s great nuclear advocates – is backtracking. President Macron is committed to cutting nuclear’s contribution to grid power from the 75% to 50%. Seven years after the Fukushima accident, all but a handful of Japan’s 54 nuclear power plants remain closed.
Meanwhile, the state-sponsored nuclear enthusiasm of China, recently the world’s premier builder, has dimmed. Beijing has issued no new construction approvals for over two years. Only Russia keeps up the momentum – which puts Britain in an embarrassing club.
[…]And nuclear power’s links to nuclear weapons are not just about shared technology – at least not while Britain remains home to the world’s largest stockpile of plutonium.
We are sitting on 130 tonnes of a human-made element that lies at the heart of most nuclear weapons. The stockpile is at a warehouse at Sellafield in Cumbria, in defiance of warnings from scientists at the Royal Society a decade ago that in its present form it poses a major security risk, whether diverted for weapons or breached by terrorists.
The plutonium was manufactured over decades from used power-station reactor fuel. Britain wanted to be at the forefront of a new global industry using plutonium to fuel new designs of reactors. But production continues even though there is no sign of a world market for plutonium. And neither the new Hinkley Point reactor under construction in Somerset, nor the proposed plant at Wylfa, will burn the stuff.
[…]On present form, that day may never come. Britain is today no nearer agreeing a final resting place for its most dangerous and long-lasting radioactive wastes than it was back in 1976, when the royal commission on environmental pollution said we should build no more nuclear power plants until that problem was resolved. Absurdly, the most recent plan has been to bury the waste in tunnels to be dug beneath the Lake District national park.
Nuclear power today is a largely friendless industry: uneconomic without heavy government support, uninsurable, stuck with a military heritage from hell, overtaken by cleaner competitors, beset by waste problems that no one has resolved, and always vulnerable to public panic after the Chernobyl or Fukushima accidents.