With Welsh nuclear plant “on hold”, 300 years of tradition is saved
By Linda Pentz Gunter
There is a crowd of people at the top of the garden path wondering where to go next. They were led up there by Horizon, a subsidiary of Hitachi, which had dangled the promise of local jobs and an economic boom in front of a low income community eager for new opportunities.
That opportunity was supposed to consist of two new Japanese-built advanced boiling water reactors, known as Wylfa B or, in Welsh, Wylfa Newydd. They would have gone up adjacent to the closed two-reactor Wylfa A site on the north coast of Anglesey in Wales. But on January 17, Hitachi got financial cold feet and “froze” the project.
Of course the whole thing was always a chimera. The “local” jobs were arguably scant. Horizon said it would build housing for a workforce of 4,000, indicating the bulk of workers would come from elsewhere. The price for the electricity Wylfa B would generate was never articulated by the company. The local council gave Horizon permission to begin clearing the proposed site even though the company did not yet have the Development Consent Order necessary for the nuclear plant to proceed.
The damage the 2,700 MW Wylfa B nuclear plant would have done to the landscape, environment, wildlife, culture and language, just in the construction phase alone, would never have been compensated by any minimal gains in local employment.
If the reactors had ever opened — and they are not yet completely off the table — the downsides would have risen by orders of magnitude, the routine radioactive releases harming human health and contaminating the air and water. And always, there would have been the perpetual risk of a catastrophic accident, with no realistic escape — the island has just two bridges across to the Welsh mainland. And, of course, the radioactive waste.
Nevertheless, almost every farmer who owned land on the prospective new Wylfa B site sold it to Horizon. All, that is, except one. Richard Jones and his wife Gwenda refused steadfastly to sell their farm to be torn up for the nuclear site. It had been in the family for 300 years.
“They could have offered us a billion pounds an acre and we wouldn’t have sold,” said Richard when we met in their cosy farmhouse kitchen last year, drinking warm mugs of tea and eating three kinds of homemade cake.
Richard pulls out a map that shows all the farms sold off around him. “Churchill said something like ‘you cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth,’” he said. His farm is positioned like the head inside the tiger’s mouth, surrounded on three sides by lands sold to Horizon. But he and Gwenda did more than reason with Horizon, they defied and challenged the company and its frequent emissaries to their farm.
“First they just came by to introduce themselves,” recalled Richard. “On the second visit they mentioned ‘we might need to buy some land off you,’ indicating maybe a quarter of an acre. And on the third visit they happened to mention that they would need quite a substantial piece of land — half the farm!”
Because the Jones farm was not situated on the nuclear part of the site, it could not be seized by eminent domain. So the family held out, despite other locals “probably thinking we’re fools for not taking the money and running,” Richard said.
And then there was the Kan coup. When the local activist group — People Against Wylfa B (PAWB) — brought the former prime minister of Japan, Naoto Kan, to Anglesey, he met with the Jones family (and hopefully was also treated to some of Gwenda’s delicious cakes!) The family had been getting quite a bit of press for their refusal to sell out. Horizon didn’t like it.
“They sort of realized they had to do something here,” recalled Gwenda of Horizon’s reaction to all the negative press. “Because Richard had had disagreements with the site manager they sent a senior member of staff. I remember him coming to the farm one afternoon and he was shivering like a leaf, he was that nervous! I felt sorry for him. I remember him fumbling in his pockets because there were rumors that Richard had a gun. But he doesn’t even have a license!”
We take a walk outside across the farmyard where a cat is basking, over to an older house next door where Richard’s mother, who had joined the tea party, still lives. It is filled with portraits of ancestors, displayed as you walk up the creaking old staircase into history. But while the family’s deep historic roots in that land were the main reason for their refusal to sell, there were other factors, brought on by the wisdom of hindsight. They simply didn’t believe Horizon and the rosy future the company was painting.
“When Wylfa A was built, I remember the impact distinctly,” said Gwenda. “The primary school down the road in Cemaes village was completely Welsh speaking. And it changed overnight.”
“They said at the time we needed the work and it was thriving for a while,” added Richard. “But we are back to square one again. So it hasn’t fulfilled what it said it was going to do, has it?”
Incomes among the people of Anglesey — or Ynys Môn in Welsh — remain among the lowest in the UK and one in four youngsters lives in a family struggling below the poverty line. The two Wylfa A 490 MW Magnox reactors, came on line in 1971, with one closing in 2012 and the second in 2015, without making a beneficial long-term impact on the local economy.
Richard and Gwenda were children when Wylfa A was built and, like many then and now, did not pay much attention to the radiological risks the nuclear plant presented. “Until it affects them, people don’t really get involved,” Richard said. “And I’m ashamed to say we were one of them.”
But realization of the risks — as well as the deceptions — was already starting to sink in when we met last summer, and is doubtless resonating even more strongly in the community today as Horizon begins dismissing its workforce.
At first, Richard said, people had been more worried about the poisonous snake populations than the nuclear waste legacy— Horizon planned to corral local adders off the land they purchased, meaning they would congregate in unnaturally high numbers in other areas. Horizon carefully avoided talking about the radioactive waste the two Wylfa B reactors would produce and the fact that it would not be leaving the site — as Wyla A waste, which was reprocessed at Sellafield — had done. (The Sellafield reprocessing plant began its shutdown process last November.)
Locals who welcomed Wylfa B had not fully realized, Richard said, just what the impact of the nuclear site would be. “Horizon only released little bits of information at a time,” he said. The company assiduously avoided public meetings where dissenting voices might get air time, instead holding “clinics” for individual residents, behind closed doors. As word seeped out that the radioactive waste would remain on site, local supporters complained that “we want the station but we don’t want the waste,” Richard said.
In a similar vein, Anglesey Council gave the green light to Horizon to move forward with clearing the site, but balked at construction of new transmission lines, a position PAWB member, Julian Wynne, described as “ludicrous.”
Even before Wylfa B was put on hold last week, Richard Jones said confidence in Horizon and the picture it was painting was already waning locally. The Jones family noticed that people who had kept their distance, were now saying, “you were right. You were the one that said ‘no’ and now…”
And now? And now, the vast potential for renewable energy development in Anglesey and the rest of Wales can and should be explored in earnest. And in haste. The pristine coastline will remain attractive to birds and birders. The nearby protected tern colony will not face disruption and destruction. And property values may increase. The Jones family found they could not rent their holiday cottages on the farm because they were told “they are too close to the nuclear site.” Another friend was told a proposed extension to her house would increase in value by £30,000 ($36,000) if Wylfa B was not built.
Richard and Gwenda Jones can take their head out of the tiger’s mouth. For now. But they, and PAWB, and the many others who confronted Horizon and Wylfa B will remain vigilant. “’Freezes’, ‘scraps’, ‘halts’, ‘suspends’…. it’s a language thing,” wrote CND Cymru’s Jill Gough on the Stop Wylfa Facebook page. “‘Stops forever’ is the one we really really want.” “But”, she added, “I think on a quiet day I can hear it coming.”
The Wylfa tiger may just be sleeping. Or it may have retreated permanently to its den.
Headline family of Naoto Kan with the Jones family (Richard holding the baby, Gwenda at far right) by Julian Wynne.