The nuclear new build programme is in trouble and the UK is in desperate need of clean and secure energy. So, says Julia Barfield, it’s time we pushed ahead with the Severn Barrage

Julia Barfield

For the past few years Marks Barfield Architects have been part of a determined and growing team of entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers, politicians and financiers on a mission to finally realise one of Europe’s biggest renewable energy projects - the Severn Barrage. Ever since I heard in the eighties about the possibility of harnessing the extraordinary power of the Severn’s tide it has always seemed to me to be a no brainer. With the news last month that the new nuclear program is stalled and has nowhere to dump its waste I am even more convinced.

The barrage can provide 5% of the UK’s electricity - equivalent to three or four nuclear reactors and more than 3,000 wind turbines. The energy is clean, secure and consistent. The barrage will last for 120 years plus - longer than any other alternative - and at £20/MWh, it is also cheaper than any other alternative - a quarter of coal, gas or nuclear at today’s prices. The real lifetime costs of Sellafield were revealed recently to be staggering £67.5bn. At £25bn to build the barrage, all privately funded, we could have 2.7 barrages for the same cost.

An important part of this proposal is the use of bi-directional turbines. These harness the in and out tides to produce guaranteed energy for about 16 hours a day and do not hold back heads of water as high as previous proposals, thus preserving 60% more intertidal habitat for the feeding and roosting grounds of wading birds. An estimated 49km2 of intertidal habitat will be lost - however, Defra has calculated that almost the same amount will be lost anyway due to rising sea levels. Indeed the barrage can also act as a flood defence, saving billions. In addition, there is a commitment to create new habitats for birds to the tune of up to £1bn as part of the project.

We [and the rest of the team] will try to ensure that the Severn Barrage has a positive impact on the environment in which it sits and is - dare I say it - beautiful

The barrage will also be a powerful force for regeneration in South Wales and the South-west - an area desperately in need of jobs and investment. On a recent trip to the area - in particular to Port Talbot, I was shocked by the deprivation. Sandfields, for example, is a housing estate of 5,000 people just outside Port Talbot, built to provide labour for steel and other industrial works, which then closed within the second generation and it is now left struggling with the aftershock. The barrage is estimated to not only create thousands of jobs during its construction, but subsequently will also be able to export this new turbine technology around the world, enabling the UK to lead the world in tidal power technology, giving the area a sustainable economic future.

The calmer estuary waters upstream of the barrage will encourage tourism and recreational uses by local people. We, together with Arup and other members of the team, will try to ensure that the barrage has a positive impact on the environment in which it sits and is - dare I say it - beautiful.

There is an urgent need to create sources of low carbon, sustainable energy in the UK. We import 30% of all our energy needs and by 2030 the Department of Energy and Climate Change forecasts there will be an energy gap of 60TWh hours. The barrage can offset 30% of this.

There is a huge amount of work to do on all fronts, not the least of which is in persuading a government which has yet to give the project its backing. More financial, environmental, engineering, and ecological work - and lots and lots of consultation - must also be done before the barrage becomes a reality. I have often wondered where we would be now if all that investment - from the eighties on - that went into nuclear had gone into renewable sources. I suspect we would be in a much better place than we are now. It’s not too late. Surely it is worth getting it right now and putting our energy into producing clean, long-lasting, cheap, renewable power - in this case tidal power driven by the moon. But it will require the government to show some boldness of vision - and even go some way to finally  delivering  on its early aspiration to be “the greenest government ever”.

Julia Barfield is managing director of Marks Barfield Architects