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.