Britain’s nuclear move

Wed, Oct 23, 2013, 01:00

Britain is running out of energy – specifically, electricity generation capacity. As coal-fired power plants are closed down to avoid adding to the carbon dioxide emissions causing climate change and old nuclear plants reach the end of their design life, the government there has had to look at other options, including the idea of importing electricity from huge wind farms located in the Irish midlands or in our waters.

This looming shortage of electricity is what lies behind the agreement announced this week between the British government and Electricité de France (EDF) to build two pressurised water reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset, at an estimated cost of €16.5 billion, with 2023 set as the completion date. “If we don’t make these essential investments,” British energy secretary Ed Davey warned, “we’re going to see the lights going out”.

Prime minister David Cameron hailed it as “a very big day for our country: the first time we’ve built a new nuclear power station for a very long time.” He also made it clear that Hinkley Point would be the first of many nuclear power projects in Britain “kick-starting again this industry, providing thousands of jobs and providing long-term, safe and secure supplies of electricity far into the future”. Other likely sites include Wylfa, on Anglesea, in north Wales.

Given that Hinkley Point C will be the first nuclear plant to start construction since the Fukushima disaster in Japan, there are obvious risks to Ireland from any serious accident. Sellafield’s patchy safety record is well-established, yet the British government told the UN that no neighbouring state would be affected by a nuclear accident at Hinkley Point as “the likely impacts . . . do not extend beyond the county of Somerset and the Severn Estuary”.

After being formally notified of the plan, as required under a UN convention, Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan requested the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland to look into it and report back. It said “food controls and agricultural protective measures” would be have to be implemented here if there was a serious accident. In the worst-case scenario, “short-term measures such as sheltering would also be required.”

However, it is undeniable that the Irish public was not consulted about the Hinkley plan – as required by UN’s Espoo Convention dealing with transboundary environmental impact assessment. That’s the nub of a legal action being taken by An Taisce in the High Court in London. “This is not about interfering with the right of the UK authorities to make their own decisions, nor about being pro- or anti-nuclear,” said the trust’s policy director James Nix. “It is about ensuring . . . the Irish public is properly consulted in accordance with the law on a project of this nature.”