By Robyn Evans
There is an air of
cautious optimism in north Wales as the UK Government recently set out hopes to
revive plans for a new nuclear power plant on the island of Anglesey, off the
northwest coast of Wales.
Officials from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have held ‘exploratory’ discussions with groups interested in building another nuclear plant at the proposed Wylfa Newydd site. Talks have taken place with a consortium involving US engineering firm Bechtel, which proposes building a Westinghouse AP1000 reactor, as well as with UK-based Shearwater Energy which has hybrid plans for small nuclear reactors and a wind farm.
Wylfa is currently the site of a decommissioned power station, which ceased operation in 2015 after 44 years. Hitachi’s £20bn Wylfa Newydd development was scrapped earlier this year after failing to reach a funding deal with the UK Government for the plant’s construction and start-up costs. The withdrawal of the Japanese firm and its subsidiary, Horizon Nuclear Power, dealt a huge blow to the UK’s low-carbon energy ambitions as well as hopes for the economic prospects of Anglesey itself.
Ministers have adopted a recent change of focus towards nuclear power which the Government sees as essential in achieving its twin goals of cutting carbon emissions and levelling up the UK economy. Plans to revive the Wylfa project have come about as Britain finds itself in the grip of an energy crisis which has focused the Government’s attention on the merits of non-fossil fuel and nature-dependant power.
Accusing previous governments of refusing to take tough decisions on nuclear, the Prime Minister has made clear his belief is that more nuclear power should be part of the country’s baseload. Government appetite for more nuclear builds has grown amid concern that the UK’s ageing fleet will result in nuclear providing only 8 per cent of the UK’s energy by 2024.
All but one of Britain’s existing nuclear reactors are expected to close by 2030 and there is only one new nuclear plant, Hinkley Point C in Somerset, currently under construction. According to the Government, a new plant at the Wylfa site could be operational in the mid-2030s and generate power for six million homes.
The project has significant backing from the local community which has suffered from more than its fair share of economic setbacks over recent years. This includes the closure of the previous Magnox plant which provided hundreds of well-paid jobs in the area and the loss of the Anglesey Aluminium plant, the impact of which is still being felt a decade on. As a result, the island has become over-reliant on low-paid and seasonal work in the tourism sector and is in desperate need of a jobs boost.
As a region which has long felt abandoned and disillusioned with decisions made at Westminster, a new nuclear plant would, by many, be a welcome sign of commitment from the UK Government.
If the latest YouGov poll is anything to go by, the Conservatives could stand to lose the four red wall seats in the north-east of Wales gained in the 2019 general election, with Anglesey being too close to call. Boris Johnson’s administration can ill-afford to raise and dash the hopes of this part of Wales which put its trust in the Conservatives two years ago on the promise of economic regeneration.
It had been hoped that the island’s second nuclear plant would be up and running by now. Ultimately, it was government indecision which led to the collapse of Hitachi’s Wylfa Newydd project, and the local community will be keen to know where it now stands.
If the UK is serious about building a nuclear fleet to meet the 2050 net-zero challenge, then decisions need to be taken now. Anglesey is well placed to play its part in the UK meeting its future energy needs, the key will be for the Government to reach a credible way of financing these kinds of new projects, in order to deliver on its own energy policy.
With carbon emission targets looming and COP26 just weeks away, all eyes will be on this month’s comprehensive spending review to see if the Government will intervene to get the project across the line.