The talks between Ineos and Rolls Royce about siting a nuclear reactor at the Grangemouth refinery are a huge early Christmas gift to campaigners opposed to a new generation of nuclear. The idea contains the perfect combination of elements needed to ensure its own defeat.
This is a plan to build an untested type of nuclear reactor on a site with significant explosion risks all around, in the middle of the most densely populated part of Scotland, with a government that is opposed to nuclear, and, best of all, for a man trade unionists and the public love to hate.
Up to now nuclear reactors have been placed in out of the way places in case the worst happens – from leaks and explosions to terrorist attacks. Or even direct military attacks as in Ukraine. This reactor would be in middle of the Central Belt, with maximum consequences guaranteed if something goes wrong.
The nuclear industry’s latest wheeze is Small Modular Reactors. They make it in a factory, bring it in on trucks and bolt it together on site. There are a number of problems. Firstly they aren’t small, needing an area the size of two football pitches and with the latest proposal having a capacity half as big as the full scale reactors that make up the French nuclear fleet. They will cost an eye-watering sum: the current estimate is £2bn but the one certainty about the nuclear industry is that the final cost is always several times what they originally told you. And they would produce proportionally more radioactive waste than the bigger versions, and of course there is still no permanent solution for nuclear waste, 70 years on from the start of the civil nuclear programme. Oh yes, and it will be well into the 2030s before an SMR could be built.
The UK Government is keen on the idea, having allocated more than £200m to the development of SMRs. But the Scottish Government has been implacably opposed to new nuclear, concentrating instead on energy efficiency and renewable energy.
Renewable energy is much cheaper, much faster to install and much, much safer. The scenarios commissioned ahead of the imminent Energy Strategy did not contain any new nuclear power, small, large or otherwise, and the Scottish Government has already been quoted in the press as saying it would block any attempt to build a reactor at Grangemouth.
The Grangemouth site is already home to a range of hazardous industries, so much so that Falkirk’s football stadium only has stands on three sides because the fourth would have been inside the Grangemouth ‘blast zone.’ Aside from an active war zone, there can’t be a more dangerous place to put a pile of super-hot radioactive material.
Then there is Sir Jim Ratcliffe, twice thwarted in his ambition to become the UK’s Fracker in Chief and hate figure among the unions for the way he treated workers at Grangemouth.
The ideal site-based environmental campaign involves a dangerous proposal in the wrong place, with hostile politics and a really clear bad guy. This proposal has it all and if it starts to become real you can expect an almighty fight.
A version of this blog was published in the Scotsman newspaper on 8th December 2022.
Original photo: Richard Webb / Grangemouth petrochemicals plant / CC BY-SA 2.0