Plans to revive nuclear power production at the Trawsfynydd site in Gwynedd can spur Wales on to meeting its climate change targets and help end the nation's reliance on fossil fuels, according to the Welsh Government.

But a prominent anti-nuclear campaigner has questioned whether the project could be completed in time – and even if Wales could begin a new era of nuclear projects, he asks whether we should.

Two industry leaders have been appointed to lead Cwmni Egino, the Welsh Government development company set up last year to find potential opportunities for the nation to start up new nuclear projects, based on emerging small-reactor technology. The economy minister has called the Trawsfynydd proposals "a significant economic opportunity for north west Wales, which is firmly embedded in to our response to the climate emergency".

Nuclear power remains controversial, and the government's enthusiasm to open a new chapter is likely to revive the decades-long debate over the benefits, and risks, of producing energy in this way.

For campaigners, it is still loaded with fear of environmental and human catastrophe. When disasters have struck in the past, the names of their locations – Chernobyl, Three Mile Island – have become bywords for the risks of harnessing the enormous power of nuclear technology. 

Nuclear power production has declined in Wales in recent decades, but now climate change has prompted a rethink, with the ever-pressing need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. Coupled with potential of new technologies, the government here believes nuclear power can play a key role in fulfilling our carbon commitments. 

Unlike plants that burn fossil fuels, nuclear power stations do not release greenhouse gases, and only release excess water vapour into the surrounding atmosphere –making this type of energy production an attractive prospect for governments with emissions targets looming over them. 

“Nuclear energy has the potential to make a contribution to eliminating the carbon emissions from our energy system by 2035 and maintaining a low carbon energy system in the long term, generating baseload electricity to supplement intermittent renewable technologies such as wind and solar," a Welsh Government spokesperson told The National.

And while nuclear waste is highly toxic and last thousands of years, the volume of total waste generated by nuclear power stations is much lower than plants that burn fossil fuels. According to the World Nuclear Association, the generation of electricity from a typical 1,000-megawatt nuclear power station produces three cubic metres of high-level waste per year, while 1,000-megawatt coal-fired power station produces approximately 300,000 tonnes of ash and more than six million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year.

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Backing the move towards a nuclear future is Blaenau Gwent's Senedd member, Alun Davies, who said it should be harnessed alongside renewables for future generations.

“Nuclear has played a significant part in Wales’s energy mix for decades," Labour MS Davies said. "I hope that it will now play a part in achieving our climate targets. The news that the Welsh Government has appointed an industry insider to lead development of the new modular reactors is great news for sites such as Wylfa or Trawsfynydd but can also breathe new life into other sites which have generated energy in the past. 

“If nuclear can replace fossil fuels and play a new role alongside renewables and a new distributed energy network then Wales can be a leader again in delivering safe and future-proof energy as a part of an energy revolution.”

A key factor in this work will be around the timescales involved, and the ability to get nuclear projects up and running before 2035 emissions target deadline arrives.

Veteran environmental campaigner, Max Wallis, said he doubted whether a new wave of nuclear plants could be switched on in time, due to the complex, lengthy processes around building and licensing any new reactors.

"If we build it, there's no way it'll be viable by the 2030s," he said. "I don't think there's anything on the horizon."

Even if nuclear projects can be completed in that time, Wallis said old concerns around the storage of radioactive waste still needed to be answered.

"The nuclear waste issue is very important," he said. "We can't say that we'll produce it and leave it for future generations to clean up. We're creating a problem we can't deal with – it would be irresponsible to try and create more of it when we can't solve it."

Current methods of storing nuclear waste, such as burying it in secure facilities underground, could still pose risks for the future, especially given the uncertain extent of the impacts of climate change on geology and rising sea levels, Wallis said, adding that "we're lumbered with it".

As a result, he warned that decision-makers in Wales' nuclear projects would have to think very seriously about the amount of waste any power station would produce.

The Welsh Government spokesperson said ministers "remain alive to the risks of nuclear installations and the waste they generate", and any future proposals for nuclear energy "would need the support of local communities".

Future projects "would be prioritised for existing sites", they said, adding that the Welsh Government was "realistic about the costs and timescales involved with developing new sites and securing the necessary investment".

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