Pembroke power station may breach eco law
- 10 December 2012
- From the section South West Wales
The new £1bn Pembroke power station may be forced to change its cooling system because of fears its technology may breach conservation laws.
A leaked document seen by BBC Wales says the European Commission is so concerned it has sent a formal notice of infringement to the UK government.
It lists 18 violations of four separate environment laws.
But RWE npower, which built the power station, said the plant's development had been thoroughly scrutinised.
It is the first case of its kind against a power plant in Britain.
Pembroke's gas-fired power station is Britain's latest and was officially opened by UK energy minister John Hayes last September.
Three months on, the European Commission is asking the UK government to prove the technology used at the plant will not adversely affect Pembrokeshire.
According to officials in Brussels, environmental costs have not been sufficiently taken into account when developing the power station.
Joe Hennon, environment spokesman for the European Commission, said: "The cooling system that they're using in this plant is what we're really concerned about.
"It takes water in at one end and pumps it out at the other and it raises the temperature of the water by about eight degrees when it comes out into the estuary, and it takes in potentially millions of fish and other forms of life and they inject biocides into the water as well.
"The UK normally should have done the assessment first because this power plant is in an area which is a special area of conservation."
The concerns in Brussels and in Pembrokeshire are based on advice given to the Welsh government by its own conservation advice body, the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), before construction had started.
CCW scientists said locating the plant on the Milford Haven estuary would have an impact on a marine special area of conservation with international status because it is known as one of the best areas in Europe for marine wildlife.
The 18 violations listed in the infringement notice include concerns on assessing environmental impacts, protecting habitats, the use of nitrates and controlling pollution. They echo CCW's initial fears.
Research suggests that the amount of water extracted from the special area of conservation to cool the five turbines at the power station would impinge on one million adult fish in a three-week period.
It would also affect three to four billion smaller fish and shellfish every year as they are sucked into the plant's cooling system. According to the European Commission, which looked at a study in the US, there could be a 100% mortality rate among the fish affected.
Despite the concerns about the plant's cooling system, RWE npower's chief operating officer Kevin McCullogh said in May that the best technology available was used at the power station.
"We have to bear in mind that power stations have always since day one used water to actually cool and drive different processes within a power plant such as the Pembroke site," he had said.
"We've worked with all of the relevant authorities and the competent authority being the Environment Agency.
"It's not us that determine whether we can do this, it's those guys that do that.
"They've looked at all of our processes, our method statements, worked with the contractors, worked with the actual process designers that build power plants and the complex systems that are within them and they have been completely satisfied, and if they weren't satisfied they would not have issued the permit."
But the notice of infringement disagrees, saying the cooling system has been chosen "based on a criterion of cost and convenience".
Mr Hennon said: "Normally you have different types of cooling system that have a lot less impact on the environment but they are more expensive.
"What happened in this case is that people went for the cheapest option.
"It's up to the UK to tell us now what they intend to do about it."
He said the European Commission's main concern was to protect the environment and public health, and he did not want the case to set a precedent.
'Thorough and robust'
UK and Welsh government ministers declined to talk, but confirmed an investigation was ongoing.
There is a separate investigation into the effect of LNG gas tankers sailing in and out of the Haven as well.
The operational permit was issued by the Environment Agency which said in a statement it believed it "provided the required protection to the special area of conservation".
RWE issued a statement saying there had been a "thorough and robust determination process".
The European Commission has given the UK government two months to respond, a deadline which runs out on 24 December.
According to officials in Brussels, outcomes could include installing a less damaging cooling system and ensuring proper compensation for whatever environmental damage that is caused.
But it may be several more months until the next step is taken.