OPINION: The British nuclear industry – What now?
The recent British election has been nothing short of a whirlwind, with Theresa May and the Conservatives failing to win over a majority of the public before partnering with a smaller party (the DUP) to remain in office.
Whilst Corbyn and the Prime Minister have spent the majority of the election ridiculing each other’s policies, there proves to have been little talk around the future of the British nuclear industry. A deep concern, being that the UK is set to enter a ‘Lights-out’ phase in as early as the next two years.
British nuclear energy provides approximately 21% of the country’s electricity and this is expected to increase with the commissioning of Britain’s newest nuclear project: Hinkley Point C. As investment in renewable power weakens, the future of the UK’s energy security will now rest on how operational success of the EDF-owned plant.
Whilst both leading parties in the general election are supportive of continuing nuclear power in the UK (even if one leader remains in a sulk about Hinkley Point) it is the Brexit negotiations that spark the most political concern for the nuclear sector. EDF’s board have stated that without Britain’s energy industry having freedom of movement after Brexit, projects like Hinkley Point could face significant challenges in the future.
Exiling from the Euratom (The European Atomic Energy Community) is something that in the wake of Brexit, the UK government has now accepted to be non-negotiable. However, the Nuclear Industry Association (trade association for the civil nuclear sector in the UK) has pleaded with MP’s to stick to the status quo. With good reason, it seems, as the UK could be “in breach of its obligations under international nuclear law” if safeguards are not put in place.
MPs representing the department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy are now urging the UK government to request a prolonged exit date from Euratom. This may be considered and even taken forward by the Torys, but this will not guarantee that the UK will retain its nuclear ties. After all, it is in the EU's best interests to merge Euratom with the wider Brexit negotiations.
One of the main concerns surrounding the UK ‘going it alone’ with its nuclear industry, is Britain’s plutonium stockpile, which is of course, regulated by Euratom. In order to safeguard the Sellafield nuclear plant (which upholds plutonium that could produce over 20,000 nuclear bombs) and continue trade, the UK will need to get these negotiations right.
Despite these concerns, the UK plays an important part in nuclear research and currently runs the world’s largest fusion experiment (Jet) in Oxfordshire. The UK will absolutely want to be cautious with its Brexit-negotiations relating to nuclear power, but equally, we must remember there are opportunities in the EU remaining a partner with Britain’s nuclear sector.
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