21 Aug 2014

How ‘nuclear-free’ would an independent Scotland really be?

The Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has privately told the boss of the energy giant EDF not to worry about the future of its two nuclear power stations – Torness and Hunterston B.

That’s despite the SNP’s public commitment to phase out nuclear power, and the claim that a “nuclear-free Scotland” is one of the major environmental reasons for voting Yes in next month’s referendum on independence.

On 18 June, the First Minister appeared to water down his party’s promise, or make it look inconsistent.

Mr Salmond wrote to the EDF Chief Executive Vincent de Rivaz, after holding a meeting with him in May:

Mr Salmond’s letter, obtained by Channel 4 News, said that: “… provided the necessary stringent safety considerations are met, we are not opposed to life extensions for Hunterston B and Torness.”

Letter Alex Salmond to Vincent de Rivaz 180614 by blueskizid

The EDF boss took this as very welcome news.  “I take your confirmation that life extensions would not be opposed in an independent Scotland as a positive message,” he wrote back to Mr Salmond on 9 July, in a letter also obtained by this programme.

Letter Vincent de Rivaz to Alex Salmond 090714 by blueskizid

The statement by Alex Salmond was considered so significant by EDF that it has been communicated to the company’s staff.

The Hunterston B power station on the coast near West Kilbride in Ayrshire was first opened in 1976.  It was due for closure in 2011, but was then given a 12-year extension until 2023.  Torness in East Lothian is a more modern station.  It was due to come to the end of its natural life in the same year.

Read more: Why next week’s Salmond-Darling debate is so important

The Scottish Government’s blueprint for independence, the white paper Scotland’s Future, promises to “phase out existing nuclear capacity over time”.  But the exchange of letters this summer appears to show that rather than close the stations gradually, the Scottish Government would allow them to continue producing nuclear energy well into the late 2020s, and possibly into the 2030s.

Green campaigners in Scotland have criticised Mr Salmond for his “careful phrasing” of the Scottish government position of future nuclear energy plans.  They argue that life extensions for Torness and Hunterston B are unnecessary because Scotland’s is due by 2020 to be self-sufficient in its energy needs purely though renewables such as wind power and hydro-electric power.

Dr Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, told Channel 4 News:

“I think this is very disappointing.  Obviously the SNP are very clear about no nuclear reactors in Scotland, but extending the life of the existing stations is something we were hoping they would be much less keen on.  So there’s this language about ‘not objecting to’, but this is basically the go-ahead to flog old reactors for as long as the company wants.  So I think this is very disappointing.

“Obviously every minute that a nuclear reactor is operating, it’s creating more radioactive pollution to the air, and it’s creating more radioactive waste that we don’t know what to do with.  So I would have hoped of the SNP, who are after all pretty pro-renewable, that they would have wanted to close these reactors down pretty swiftly.”

Labour’s spokesman, Iain Gray, whose East Lothian constituency includes the Torness station, said:

“In truth, they don’t really have the courage of their own convictions.  They should say, if they are opposed to nuclear power, that they want to see these stations closed down.  I’m glad that they don’t, because my constituency needs the 500 jobs at Torness. To be honest with you, it could do with the potentially thousands of jobs that new generation nuclear power could provide as well.

“So really we have an SNP Government which has a position which they think is populist and popular, to be anti-nuclear, but the hypocrisy is that they know that they depend on nuclear power to produce half of Scotland’s electricity.”

Patrick Harvie, MSP, leader of the Scottish Green Party, told me: “The Scottish Government are clear that they want to see nuclear phased out, that they don’t see it having a long-term permanent role in Scotland’s energy system,  I think that we should be placing a time limit on that now.  It’s pretty clear that into the 2020s we will not be needing nuclear power in the context of a Scotland generating more 100 per cent of what we consumer from clean, green renewable energy.”

A spokesman for the SNP Government said Mr Salmond’s letter was consistent with what their ministers have always said.  He cited the then SNP Energy Minister Jim Mather, back as 2007, as saying they weren’t against extending existing nuclear power stations until the end of their natural life.

But at that stage, Mr Mather was merely talking about an extension at Hunterston B to 2016.

Follow @MichaelLCrick on Twitter