Purely a matter of luck

Twenty years ago to this very day, on 31 July 1993, there was an accident at the Wylfa nuclear power plant. One of the reactors was being refuelled, but the crane (or, more technically, the grab) that was being used to do it broke and fell into the reactor itself. It became jammed in one of the refuelling channels and blocked it.

What were the consequences of this accident? Well, nothing was reported at the time. Nuclear Electric, the new private operator which had taken over running the plant, gave it a zero rating, implying that it had no significance in safety terms. It was a deliberate attempt to downplay the incident and therefore make sure that it was not reported to the authorities or, more damagingly, in the media.

How serious it was only leaked out a few years later. When the matter eventually went to the courts the Chief Inspector of Nuclear Installations said it was potentially the most serious incident he had come across in Britain during his career. The Health and Safety Executive said that it was "purely a matter of luck that a meltdown did not occur". Nuclear Electric were found guilty and were landed with a huge fine. The details are here.


Fukushima went into meltdown because its cooling systems were put out of action by a tsunami. Supporters of the nuclear industry say it couldn't happen in Wales because we don't have tsunamis ... although we might well have had one in 1607. Nor do we have earthquakes that might cause one ... although, as we can read here, there have been quite a few earthquakes in north Wales, including two this year. But you don't need to have some sort of natural disaster to set up a nuclear meltdown, it can be caused by something as simple as an unforeseen accident during a normal, routine event. The only thing that prevented the incident at Wylfa becoming a meltdown was luck. It was purely a matter of luck.


Let's imagine that luck had not been on our side twenty years ago and the reactor at Wylfa had gone into meltdown. What would have happened? On one scale, and obviously the most important one, it is unlikely that many people would have been killed. I don't think anyone died as a direct result of the meltdown at Fukushima, and only a few dozen people died as a direct result of the meltdown at Chernobyl. But on another scale it would have been devastating, literally devastating, because a large area surrounding the plant would be unsafe for human habitation and need to be evacuated. In Fukushima there is a 20km compulsory evacuation zone and a 30km voluntary evacuation zone, but people in some towns outside the 30km zone were told to leave too.


This is what the same evacuation zones would be on Môn. The 20km zone in red would extend in an arc reaching as far as Rhosneigr, Llangefni and Benllech. The 30km voluntary evacuation zone in yellow would include just about the whole island. Holyhead would be well within the compulsory evacuation zone, which would have a knock-on effect for the whole of north Wales because the vital transport artery to Ireland would be severed. The ferries would now leave from Liverpool instead ... with only a slight detour to avoid sailing through the contaminated zone.


Ynys Môn is an island with several huge advantages from an energy point of view. It is right in the middle of the Irish Sea, making it a perfect location from which to assemble and maintain the offshore windfarms that have been built, and the huge offshore windfarms that are about to be built. Holyhead could be to the Irish Sea what Aberdeen is to the North Sea oil and gas industry, and become very prosperous because of it.


The island also has some of the best tidal flow resources to be found anywhere around the coast of Britain. This map is from the Atlas of Marine Renewable Resources:


And from a nuclear point of view the island has advantages too, but rather different ones. Technically there is no reason why a nuclear power plant can't be built anywhere providing it is next to the sea or a large river or lake for cooling. But the UK government would not dream of building a nuclear power station on the banks of the Thames or the Mersey. If they did, they would have to evacuate millions of people in the event of an accident. Ynys Môn has a population of only 70,000, so permanently evacuating half the island would mean that maybe only 35,000 people would have to find new homes. I'm sure that if the refugees were divided equally between Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff and London, those cities would be able to accommodate them with hardly any trouble at all. The real advantage of building a nuclear power station in a place like Môn, from the point of view of a government based in London, is political. The island is expendable.

But is it expendable from our point of view? Môn, Mam Cymru, is a vital part of our culture, our history, our language ... and our future. I simply cannot understand why anyone who claims to put the people of Môn, or the people of Wales, first would want to take such a risk. Yes, it makes perfect sense for a government in London to think that Môn is a good location for a nuclear power station, but it makes no sense for anyone in Wales to think that way. Not when the island is so perfectly located to take advantage of offshore wind and tidal energy instead, creating just as many high-quality, permanent jobs as a nuclear power station could ever provide, but with no risk whatsoever of half the island having to be evacuated in the event of an accident. Supporting Wylfa B is a betrayal of what Plaid Cymru stands for. If Rhun ap Iorwerth is elected, it would be a tragedy for Plaid Cymru, for Ynys Môn and for Wales.

Am I writing this because the Ynys Môn by-election is taking place tomorrow, or because the incident that so nearly led to a meltdown in one of the reactors at Wylfa happened exactly twenty years ago?

Both. The coincidence is purely a matter of luck.

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Hogyn o Rachub said...

Well let's hope that Katherine Jones wins tomorrow then eh?

kp said...

You talk about an incident that happened twenty years ago. Why not talk about the one that happened last week?

Simples. No-one cares. Not on this island because we have a seriously under-educated population. And not on the mainland because it happened on this island.

We'll get what we deserve .... and that isn't very encouraging if truth be known.

Ifan Morgan Jones said...

"Not when the island is so perfectly located to take advantage of offshore wind and tidal energy instead, creating just as many high-quality, permanent jobs as a nuclear power station could ever provide."

I'd have both!

Dylan said...

Well as far as support for party aims goes, it seems to me that disagreeing with one part of the party's platform kind of pales in comparison with publicly stating that you hope that the party's candidate loses. This is getting a bit silly.

MH said...

Why do you want more than Wales needs, Ifan? We can generate more electricity than Wales needs from renewables, so why go to the expense of producing extra electricity that we don't need for export to other countries, only to be lumbered with the costs of decommissioning and storing the toxic waste? When Wales is independent, do you seriously expect England to pay? They will turn round and say, "You wanted the jobs, so now you have to pay for them."

I believe every country has an obligation to produce its own electricity cleanly, without adding to global warming, even though it may cost more than generating it with conventional fossil fuels. And if we could make a profit out of exporting clean electricity to other countries I would have no problem with it; on the contrary, I'd welcome it. But for the life of me I can't see why we should generate electricity for export in a way that puts us at risk and will leave us with a huge clean-up and storage bill for generations to come.

MH said...

For me, the question to ask is what is in the best long-term interests of Plaid, Dylan. The damage caused by waiving party rules to allow Rhun to stand and needlessly forcing local members to make an instant decision without any time for proper scrutiny has already been done, and the question now is what we do as a party to repair it.

If Rhun is elected, we're stuck with him. It's clear to me that, even though he only came clean about being pro-Wylfa B after he had been selected, he isn't going to change his mind. I posted about the lie he told about Plaid Cymru's policy on Sunday Supplement in an attempt at self-justification. Some people might have put that down to the ignorance of a new member, but he tried to tell the very same lie on Pawb a'i Farn on Monday. This time people were wise to it and didn't let him get away with it. Rhun obviously thinks that if you keep on repeating the same lie, people will believe it.

It will be better for Plaid if Rhun loses. We can then lick our wounds and make sure we choose a more honest candidate next time. Not only will that help us in Môn, but showing backbone, principle and consistency will help Plaid win elsewhere in Wales in 2016.

Anonymous said...

It's almost as if you had this all planned in advance and you've managed to show up Plaid, Labour, the Western Fail, Fails Online a couple of blogs and who knows how many other pro-nuke people.

And you spotted a great daily fact too! 10/10

Dylan said...

Party rules weren't waived. The mechanism existed with exceptional circumstances like this in mind.

Your last paragraph is simply not sane.

An Eye On... said...

I disagree with your analysis that it would be a tragedy for Ynys Mon should Plaid win.

The reality is Nuclear energy is UK Strategic. Building Wylfa B has got nothing to do with Ynys Mon County Council, nothing to do with the Welsh Government and not even anything to do with the UK Parliament. All decisions regarding Nuclear are made at Westminster Cabinet level and can be imposed without even consultation if they wish.

The only sure-fire way to stop Wylfa B is for Wales to become independent. And only Plaid will go that way.

kp said...

Red Flag, you perfectly sum up the dilemma of recent days.

If Rhun ap Iowerth isn't going to toe the party line on nuclear power can he be trusted to toe the line on anything else the party has agreed upon, including the desire for independence.

Current evidence suggest not. And so he is a bad candidate for anyone wanting to vote for Plaid.

Anonymous said...

I sympathize with a great deal of what you have said on this issue MH, and it's great to see grassroots opinion within Plaid Cymru flagged up so prominently.

I too, am particularly disappointed that the implications of nuclear storage and decommissioning costs in future for any independent Wales have not really featured at all in the by-election campaign. Especially in view of the fact that the electorate have been so receptive to a Plaid Cymru campaign, and the Labour vote( associated by so many with Wylfa B) being so incredibly soft on Ynys Mon at present. What's the point of being a nationalist party if you don't promote a strong nationalist message?

But, I can't for the life of me see how your very valid criticisms of Rhun's position on Wylfa B then has to be coupled with a statement that it would be a tragedy for Plaid Cymru and Wales if Rhun wins today.

Surely it would be better to argue that a potential AM has a current position on the matter which is at variance within Plaid Cymru's official policy- but with a couple of years before the next Parliamentary/Senedd, there is time to bring the two positions closer together- if members front up and insist on a wide ranging debate within Plaid Cymru Mon + Wales on this matter?

With Rhun being such a new candidate, I am sure that he would also welcome an opportunity to work with the party membership to shape future messages.

MH said...

I appreciate what you say, Aled, but have to say that I have my suspicions about very much more than Rhun's position on nuclear. So far as anyone outside his immediate circle is concerned, he remains an unknown quantity in terms of his political views. It has been foolish to let someone who has only been a member of Plaid Cymru for a few weeks, and who before that had given no public indication of what he believed politically (which he couldn't, because of his job ... but that doesn't change anything) stand for election, especially in a safe seat. It was a risk we were wrong to take.

I think the suggestion of waiting a year or so to see if there was room for Rhun's position and that of Plaid Cymru to be brought closer together is good. However that should have been done before deciding whether he should be a candidate, not afterwards. As I see it, that is part of the wisdom behind the one year rule.

But I also have to say that finding some form of accommodation between Rhun's position and that of the party is highly unlikely, given his pro-Wylfa tweet on the 19th and what he said on Sunday and Monday. And why on earth should the party make a compromise with him anyway? We have taken some trouble over the last few years to reach a position on nuclear, and I don't see why we should re-open that because Rhun disagrees with it. He would need to be the one that moved, not us. If Plaid Cymru is a party that is going to make electoral progress, we need to learn discipline. Rhun has shown himself to be another loose cannon, just like Dafydd Elis-Thomas, undermining the party by insisting that party policy is what they say it is, rather than what has actually been agreed. That is the reason why his election will be a tragedy for Plaid.

I can hear the words now. Either tomorrow or soon after we will hear Rhun or others who share his pro-nuclear views telling us that his election is evidence that Plaid should "be realistic" and change our policy on nuclear. And that will reinforce my suspicion that this whole episode was engineered specifically to undermine party policy ... on this issue, certainly, and who knows what else?

Lyndon said...

Jesus, this is getting to be like the Tories and the EU!

Get over it man, no-one else cares!

Lyndon said...

Jesus, this is getting to be like the Tories and the EU!

Get over it man, no-one else cares!

Lyndon said...

Jesus, this is getting to be like the Tories and the EU!

Get over it man, no-one else cares!

MH said...

It appears that a good number of people care very much, Lyndon. Including you. And for as long as they do, this will remain a live issue.

Don't forget that the majority of people in Plaid are totally opposed to building any new nuclear power stations in Wales, including Wylfa B.

Don't forget, either, that even those who support Wylfa B will acknowledge that our anti-nuclear policy has been put together in a democratic way; and all but the most recalcitrant will have accepted the decision of the majority, even if they disagree with it.

Of course anyone who is pro-nuclear can try to change party policy ... and they're welcome to. But I'm sure they would recognize that the only way to change the decision is to bring the matter before conference again, and make their case there. If their arguments convince a majority, our policy will change. But until or unless that happens, our party policy is going to remain firmly anti-nuclear. You and a few others appear to need to be reminded about this.


I think that only a handful in the party will agree that it was right to undermine the party by openly opposing what we have agreed as a party. Keeping quiet about it, or making ambiguous statements about it, is one thing; but openly opposing it is something far worse. However that is what Rhun has chosen to do, and because of it he deserves to be criticized.

More than that, on two occasions he told blatant lies about our party policy in an attempt at self-justification. I'm sure that even fewer people in the party will agree that he was justified in doing that.

In short, Rhun hasn't got a leg to stand on.

Ifan Morgan Jones said...

Hi MH. I understand why this issue has upset you and I think you're right to speak out on a matter that's so close to your heart (as I've written here:) http://ifanmj.blogspot.co.uk/2013/08/amddiffyn-syniadau.html

However I do think you've misjudged what has happened here. You portray Rhun as a cuckoo in the nest, a 'loose cannon' who has ignored the party and said what he wants to say. Isn't it more likely that he has discussed these matters in depth with the party leadership and that they have agreed to allow him to take a pro-Wylfa B stance? After all this stance (some would call it two-faced, some would call it good politics) has pretty muh been their stance on Ynys Mon throughout IWJ's tenure, though he didn't make it quite as explicit.

Perhaps then you should direct your fire at the party as a whole rather than attacking one person.

Despite the fact that being anti-nuclear power is Plaid party policy, I'm quite convinced that beyond the conference bubble there is a large majority that is pro Wylfa B, even amongst Plaid Cymru members. The Plaid Cymru leadership understand that and that's why they gave Rhun the go ahead to endorse Wylfa B. The pro-Rhun landside at the ballot box would suggest that this wasn't the terrible mistake you suggest it is.

MH said...

You are attempting to rationalize things, Ifan. But no, it isn't at all likely that Rhun discussed these matters at length with the leadership of the party, and that they agreed to allow him to take a pro-Wylfa stance.

I'm sure that there are a few people in the party (Ieuan Wyn Jones is certainly one, but there will be a few others) for whom this might not be a surprise ... although I suspect that Rhun may have gone further, faster, than even they expected. But I'm sure the rest of the party will have been as shocked as I was that Rhun would suddenly switch from an ambiguous position that at least reflected some aspects of Plaid's policy, to a position where he started to openly oppose party policy.

Although people outside the party can hardly be expected to understand the intricacies of what happens inside the party, it would be a mistake to drag the whole party down simply because a small group of recalcitrants refused to accept the democratic decision of the party as a whole, and sought to do by subterfuge what they could not do by openly arguing their case at conference. If, as you seem to think, a majority in Plaid is pro-nuclear, it would have been easy for them to put a new pro-nuclear motion to conference and get a majority to back it.


And it is interesting that you should describe the result as a "pro-Rhun" landslide. This was a completely safe seat for Plaid at Assembly level; and we would have won this election comfortably, irrespective of which candidate had been chosen.

Peter Gillibrand said...

Rhun is probably the best candidate for Ynys Môn. He promotes more local support to get the economy back by helping promote mon in the cynulliad. If you can't see that Rhun hasn't got a leg to stand on then you obviously can't see all he can and will do for the people of the island.

Der said...

A landslide is not the same as winning comfortably.

Cai Larsen said...

It wasn't a comfortable win, it was an annihalation of the Labour party - even in it's urban heartlands. They were hit by a train they didn't see coming.

It's a model of needs to happen all over the country.

Hogyn o Rachub said...

Cai's right. And it completely vindicated the party's decision to allow Rhun to stand, and the ordinary members of Môn to choose him. Completely.

As someone outside of the party, I think I can offer a more unbiased view than most people here on this...

I don't think there's any doubt whatsoever that if Plaid Cymru really are serious about winning elections instead of being perennial also-rans, they have a lot to learn from Môn over the last few weeks - and that ranges from organisation, campaigning and choice of candidate.

Plaid Cymru did all of these things right this time. Please, if your party is really serious about knocking Labour of it's perch, accept that and learn from last night. Not blather on about nuclear (as important as it is to many in the party it simply isn't as important as displacing Labour ... and if some in Plaid Cymru can't get their heads around that then you'll never win anything).

MH said...

Cai, when I wrote ths post, I said:

Here we are, half way through a by-election campaign which political commentators say even a donkey wearing a Plaid rosette would be expected to win by twenty lengths; so we handicap him by putting out material which can only be designed to give Labour's Taliesin Michael a tantalizing glimpse of hope.

Rhun will still win anyway, but I suppose the finish will be a little more exciting if we give Tal a chance to catch up.

You took a light-hearted post, which was designed to make a point about how hopelessly behind Labour were, with a seriousness that showed you weren't at all confident about Plaid winning. You became very defensive and started making all sorts of wild accusations about me. It's easy to be wise after the event, but while you were in headless chicken mode, I was consistent about this being a safe seat for Plaid.


To HoR, I would say that this victory doesn't vindicate anything, and it certainly doesn't vindicate the way we chose the candidate. Anybody who stood for Plaid would have won because of the hard work that Plaid supporters have put in over many years, not because of a media personality who only joined the party a few weeks ago.

You might think that this is a positive sign, I think the opposite. Nuclear power isn't the issue. We made the mistake of choosing a candidate without knowing what he was made of, and he showed us that he was prepared to lie and mislead the public in order to win an election. If you think that this has helped the party, you are mistaken. This episode has led others to see us as a bunch of cynical hypocrites who would sell our own mothers if we thought it would give us an electoral advantage. It is going to take a lot of hard work to repair the damage.

Hogyn o Rachub said...

" This episode has led others to see us as a bunch of cynical hypocrites who would sell our own mothers if we thought it would give us an electoral advantage."

Well sorry to break it to you but there's 12,601 people on Ynys Môn who don't agree!

Lyndon said...

Fantastic result on Ynys Mon, and a textbook example for what we need to do in the rest of Wales.

Well done to everyone involved in the campaign.

Ifan Morgan Jones said...

Just heard Rhun ap Iorwerth on the news say that Leanne Wood was "very comfortable" with his pro-Wylfa B argument.

*runs away and awaits explosion*

Anonymous said...

HOR: "Well sorry to break it to you but there's 12,601 people on Ynys Môn who don't agree!".

That's just nasty - there are 309 Lib Dems that agree with MH ;-)

Cai Larsen said...

Michael - not withstanding your increasingly hysterical & irrational behaviour over the last month or so, perhaps it might be an idea to step back & consider the 12,601kg elephant on your doorstep.

Mei said...

I think it's a bit disingenuous to selectively quote an anti-nuclear publication.

The full quote is

"The Health and Safety Executive now claims that it was purely a matter of luck that a meltdown did not occur during that period."

So it was a "claim" rather than the conclusion you made it out to be (unsourced too, I can't find the original H&SE quote).

I looked into it further and found that the judge in the case, Mr Justice Morland had said:

"no one was exposed to actual danger and there was no foundation for the suggestion that there could have been a melt-down. The worst that could have happened was melting of nuclear fuel and a fire in the channel where the grab had fallen. If that had happened, the resulting rise in temperature would have been detected and the reactor immediately shut down". source: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/accident-at-wylfa-costs-power-firm-pounds-250000-fine-1601099.html

MH said...

Thanks for the link to the Independent's article, Mei. There was nothing "disingenuous" about what I did, I provided a link to the source so people could see what I quoted in context.

The key part of what you've quoted is, "If that had happened, the resulting rise in temperature would have been detected and the reactor immediately shut down."

The inference from that comment is clearly that if the reactor had NOT been immediately shut down then a meltdown could have been set in train.

After the grab broke in this incident, and not even knowing exactly where the grab had fallen, the operators did not immediately shut down the plant. With inexcusable disregard for the danger, they left it running for nine hours before eventually shutting it down. The H&SE said that it was purely a matter of luck that a meltdown did not occur during that period ... i.e. before it was shut down.

So there's not really very much difference between what the H&SE said and what the judge said. What should have happened is for the reactor to have been shut down immediately, but it wasn't. If it was safe to carry on operating without knowing what had happened to the grab, reacting only if there was an increase in temperature, then Nuclear Energy would not have been fined so heavily.

When the judge said that, "The worst that could have happened was melting of nuclear fuel and a fire in the channel where the grab had fallen," he was speaking with the benefit of hindsight, knowing where the grab had actually fallen. It was purely a matter of luck that it hadn't glanced off and got stuck somewhere else with much more serious consequences.

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