The SNP government’s plan to permit the lives of two ageing nuclear power stations to be prolonged until 2033 has been condemned as dangerous and unnecessary by a powerful group of local authorities, including three run by the SNP.
The issue is threatening to open another damaging nuclear divide within the SNP, following fierce disagreements over the party leadership’s move to end its decades-long opposition to membership of the Nato nuclear weapons alliance.
An expert report due to be published today by the ten-strong group of nuclear-free councils in Scotland says that Scottish ministers are wrong to try and keep the nuclear reactors at Hunterson in North Ayrshire and Torness in East Lothian running for the next two decades.
The nuclear-free group includes two SNP-led councils, Dundee plus Perth and Kinross, as well as Edinburgh where the SNP is part of a ruling coalition with Labour. Other councils involved are Labour-controlled Glasgow, Fife, Renfrewshire, North Lanarkshire and West Dunbartonshire, along with two independent councils, Western Isles and Shetland Isles.
“There is no need for the Scottish Government to support risky life extensions,” the group’s report concludes. Instead, it says that a combination of improved energy efficiency, combined heat and power schemes and renewables could ensure that Scotland met its energy needs.
Scottish ministers have repeatedly said that they will not oppose plans by the French nuclear company, EDF, to extend the lives of its nuclear stations. EDF has said that it will apply to UK regulators to keep Hunterston going until 2021, and it is likely to try and postpone the closure of Torness from 2023 to 2033.
The Scottish environment minister, Stewart Stevenson, recently told a conference in Edinburgh that the Scottish government’s policy was that Hunterson and Torness should be “milked to death” because their electricity was relatively cheap. But no new nuclear power stations should be built, he said.
“Milking Scottish reactors dry is another way of saying maximising the chances of an accident as these reactors get older and more decrepit,” said Pete Roche, a policy adviser to the nuclear free local authorities in Scotland and the author of the new report.
“Clearly SNP activists who have been promoting a nuclear phase-out are not going to be happy about the possibility of Scotland remaining nuclear until 2033 and beyond.”
Roche pointed out that the Scottish government's “pro-nuclear position” would be an important influence on the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), the UK government watchdog that decides whether to allow nuclear stations to prolong their lives. If ministers adopted an anti-nuclear stance, they could put pressure on ONR to close Hunterston in 2016 and Torness in 2023.
According to Roche’s report, the Hunterston B nuclear station is already older than most of the reactors shut down by the German government after the Fukushima disaster last year. Germany is also planning to reduce electricity consumption by 10% by 2020, while Scotland is expecting it to rise by 10%.
The report was warmly commended by the SNP councillor for Dunfermline South, Brian Goodall, who also chairs the nuclear-free local authorities in the UK. It showed the Scottish government how to “dramatically scale-up” its visions on energy efficiency and renewables, he said.
The SNP MSP who convenes the Scottish Parliament’s environment committee, Rob Gibson, pointed out that the faster renewables were developed, the sooner nuclear power could be phased out. “Nuclear power is not needed,” he said. “Scots see that 100% of electricity needs can be met by 2020 from renewables.”
Another SNP MSP, Marco Biagi, backed the Scottish government’s approach. “Scotland's nuclear power stations will ultimately be made redundant by Scotland’s shift to renewable energy,” he said. “When exactly this happens and so how long they need to continue operating is really a technical question based on estimates of future generation and demand.”
The Scottish government reiterated that it was opposed to building new nuclear power stations. But a spokeswoman added: “We have made it clear that, subject to the relevant safety cases being made, the Scottish government would not oppose operating life extension applications at Torness and Hunterston.”