From nuclear mud to nuclear national parks – the Welsh nuclear situation

By Matt Tomlin

Currently, there are two major issues surrounding nuclear energy in Wales. The first is the recent dumping of what campaigners have deemed ‘nuclear mud’ from the EDF Hinkley Point nuclear power station in Somerset to Cardiff Bay. The second are the plans for new nuclear power projects in North Wales, including the recently delayed Wylfa Newydd nuclear power station on Anglesey; a project being managed by Japanese company Hitachi.

The issue of nuclear power plants is mainly affiliated with the Westminster government as energy production is not a fully devolved power, while the dumping of mud from Somerset has been a focus of the Welsh Government, with the Welsh Assembly having voted against putting a stop to the dumping in early October 2018.

The issue of ‘nuclear mud’ in Cardiff Bay has received backlash from many concerned over the environmental and health hazards. While the new Hinkley Point C nuclear power station is constructed in Somerset, mud near to the old Hinkley power stations has had to be dredged to make way for the new construction. Over 20 Welsh businesses have been claimed to have had involvement in the removal of this mud from Somerset across the channel to Cardiff Bay; a decision made due to Cardiff Bay’s suitability for such redistribution.

This mud has been deemed ‘nuclear mud’ by those in Cardiff against the idea as while EDF and the Welsh Government have claimed the mud is not radioactive by the standards of UK law, those concerned wanted the mud to have further testing to prove its safety as if, for example, a storm were to occur again on the scale of October’s Storm Callum then this could lead to unsafe mud being washed inland throughout Cardiff.

Gair Rhydd got into contact with Cian Ciarán, keyboard player for the band Super Furry Animals, and prolific campaigner against the redistribution of this sediment to Cardiff Bay without adequate testing.

He said that the Welsh Assembly’s vote against stopping the mud dumping was “no surprise and confirms the fact that people’s voices have not been heard over the issue.

“Decisions were made before people’s concerns and adequate testing were taken into account and that’s disappointing and frustrating.

“Our main objection against the nuclear mud dumping was that it had not been tested enough and if particles in the mud are dangerous and inhaled then that is a potentially significant dose of radiation involved, with people in Cardiff, Newport and Barry at risk.”

Having been brought up in North Wales, Ciarán also commented on the developments of nuclear power in North Wales and nuclear’s influence on Wales as a country. He commented “Wanting to build more stations is ridiculous. It’s economically unjustified as renewables can employ more people and the UK government keeps causing more nuclear waste by building more power stations. The case in Wales is that nuclear issues keep being swept under the carpet or even under a national park.”

Nuclear power in North Wales has had a tumultuous few months, with possible delays to the proposed Wylfa Newydd nuclear power station having been a concern prior to Hitachi’s announcement in January about postponing the project. The suspension of operations at the site for the foreseeable future has made uncertain the potential for the 9,000 construction jobs and 1,000 permanent jobs which were predicted for the area as a result of the project.

The decision to halt the development has been based on concerns over the cost of nuclear energy production, particularly in light of the decreasing costs of renewable energy. When Theresa May was asked about Wylfa Newydd following her meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister in January she did not present the idea of any government intervention. The PM stated that while the two had discussed the situation, the future of the Wylfa project was a “commercial decision” to be made by Hitachi.

There is some consideration for the development of further renewable energy production in North Wales, particularly tidal. It is unknown whether arguments for such a move will become more relevant in light of the Wylfa Newydd delay.

The acceleration of technology has been a frequently discussed issue with the development of large-scale nuclear reactor technologies such as those proposed for Wylfa Newydd. Critics of them have implied that by the time such developments are complete the nuclear technology implemented is no longer the most current and efficient available, thus making it hard for the nuclear market to keep up to speed with updates whilst remaining safe.

Large-scale reactors have been prone to issues with getting such technology to function correctly, prompting some demand for smaller-scale reactors. Such demand has, however, been proposed to be catered to with potential for a government-backed small modular reactor in Trawsfynydd; the only nuclear power plant in Wales other than the old Wylfa plant. Based in the Snowdonia National Park, Trawsfynydd is no longer in operation and is the only nuclear plant in the UK to be based in-land next to a man-made lake. As part of a government-backed £200m investment into nuclear technology development in the UK, a £40m SMR research facility was announced in June 2018 for the Trawsfynydd site, with potential to bring in up to 600 jobs.

Having met with potential international bidders for working on a small modular reactor at Trawsfynydd, UK Business and Energy Secretary Greg Clark said at the time that “It’s incredibly exciting what we’re putting in in terms of innovation and research but also working with sites which have a deep history of excellence in nuclear engineering such as we have here, is an ideal combination.”

There have, meanwhile, been a number of environmental and health worries raised over the North Wales nuclear situation and its future. When Hitachi first began using its proposed site for Wylfa Newydd, Greenpeace launched a legal bid to try and prevent it from continuing. With regards Trawsfynydd, the sediment in the man-made lake has been made radioactive by the power station. There are also concerns over claims that some of the low-level nuclear waste from the plant could be buried on-site at Trawsfynydd following discussion in the House of Commons last year that national parks could not be ruled out as potential nuclear waste burial sites.

It would seem that Wales is a centre for discussions over the production of nuclear energy and the concerns it has brought to communities and environmental campaigners. While the dumping of mud from Hinkley Point in Cardiff Bay has been well underway for some time now since the Welsh Assembly’s decision, the future of nuclear energy in North Wales is currently unclear, as is the future for any renewables in Wales.

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