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Last edited 06 Feb 2021
Not a choice between renewables and nuclear - we need both
|The demise of Wylfa Newydd is a loss for Wales, a setback for our national energy policy, and will lead to a brain drain, writes Sara Jones.|
Eight years ago, the Great East Japan Earthquake occurred: the undersea, magnitude 9.1 earthquake was the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan and the fourth most powerful in the world. The resultant tsunami waves are thought to have reached 40m in height and travelled 10km inland. The fatalities from this extreme natural disaster are around 19,000.
Yet the Japanese disaster most people in the UK think about is the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. This nuclear disaster was the worst since Chernobyl in 1986 and should never have happened. The plant should have been resilient to these types of natural hazards. The resultant radiation pollution of the immediate area is extensive.
Sadly, this death toll will grow over time, but due to the precautions now being taken during the clean-up, the final number is unlikely, in my view, ever to reach even 0.5% of the numbers who drowned in the tsunami.
At the time of the nuclear disaster, the French government advised its ex-pats in Japan to fly home immediately. The advice from the UK government to its nationals was to stay put, because the risk of the plane crashing would be far higher and the radiation dose received during the flight would be thousands of times more than anything they would receive in Japan.
Our perception of risk is just that – perception. Even the scientists and engineers among us are swayed by personal experience or what our society accepts as reasonable. We all drive cars faster than speed limits, but that car crash will never happen to us. We all breathe in pollution in cities, but do not think about the long-term health consequences. We all know about global warming but cannot quite mobilise ourselves to change lifestyles now for something which is far in the future.
For me, the risk from nuclear power stations is miniscule compared with the effects of global warming. To solve global warming, we are pinning our hopes on electric cars, electric trains and to heat our homes by electric rather than gas boilers. But where is all this electricity going to come from?
At 7pm on a dark Friday night in February 2019, Gridwatch showed that around 60% of our electricity was supplied by burning gas, with 20% from wind and 12% from nuclear. We have to stop burning gas, now, to have any hope of achieving our carbon reduction targets. It is not a choice between renewables and nuclear; we need both.
In Germany this year, there was one of the first-ever pro-nuclear demonstrations ever seen. People who would not normally protest marched in favour of restarting Germany’s nuclear plants, rather than the current policy of buying in electricity from other countries who burn gas.
The announcement by Hitachi on 17 January 2019 that it was suspending its UK nuclear development programme is extremely worrying. Renewables UK stated that this “announcement risks blowing a hole in the government’s plans to meet our carbon targets”.
On Channel 5 news that evening, the reporter who covered the subject was stood in front of the iconic Menai Bridge. He said that he had been in the press conference on the day the UK government had decided not to back the Swansea Tidal Lagoon scheme. The government representative had played down the effect on Welsh business by saying “but you’ve still got Wylfa Newydd”. Both schemes are needed.
The tidal lagoon is an important loss leader for this emerging technology and should have received government backing as offshore wind turbines were heavily subsidised to begin with. Now the turbine industry has advanced significantly and the costs have dropped. The Swansea tidal lagoon would have made Wales a centre of excellence and would have led to more tidal-energy schemes around our coastline.
The demise of Wylfa Newydd is bad news for the skilled workforce who live in the area. The nuclear station stopped generating only two years ago, not due to any safety concerns, but purely because the fuel ran out. Fuel manufacture stopped some years before because no one expected these stations to run for as long as they have.
Wylfa had an exemplary operational record and could have continued for many years. The workforce should have passed their precious technical skills on to the next generation of workers at Wylfa Newydd, but now are facing the choice between retirement or moving out of the area.
 The UK's uncertainty hinders our prospects
The political will required to ensure the construction of the new generation of nuclear plants is missing in the UK. We tempt foreign companies to come to Britain and spend considerable sums of money investing in these projects, on the prospect of future payback. And yet we do not give them the certainty they need, that we will not change our minds.
The Japanese government had backed Hitachi with hard cash and were, by all accounts, baffled as to why our government would not take a stake in its own national infrastructure. In the end, Hitachi spent nearly £3bn with no guarantee that the project would go ahead, and so sadly took the decision to suspend work.
We must stop burning gas, now. Otherwise we are sleep walking this planet into oblivion.
 About this article
This article was written by Sarah Jones, Principal Consultant at Salix Engineering Services. It appeared on the website of The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) in April 2019 and can be accessed here.
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