John Lindberg is Weinberg Next Nuclear’s Technology Officer and a former policy adviser in the Scottish Parliament, who previously served as President of the Glasgow University Conservatives.
On Monday the Government published its green paper on Industrial Strategy. The nuclear industry was encouraged by good news: renewed focus on developing skills for the nuclear sector and increased competitiveness are both very welcome.
The UK could potentially have a leading role in developing new nuclear reactors: reactors with vastly superior fuel efficiencies, that run on nuclear ‘waste’, are virtually proliferation-resistant, and have passive safety measures built-in. So far, so good.
However, earlier it was revealed in the explanatory notes of the Brexit Bill that the UK intends to leave the European nuclear partnership, EURATOM. This has landed like an artillery shell in the nuclear community.
The decision will likely impact the UK’s plans for new power stations, research, skills development and dealing with the waste legacy. The Government seems to have shot itself in the foot.
Upon withdrawal a complex set of negotiations would have to take place, as most nuclear cooperation with the UK relies on safeguards that are provided through EURATOM. It may not be possible to agree and ratify new agreements before Britain leaves the EU in 2019.
This would severely undermine UK competitiveness, potentially make procuring fuel much more difficult, and put new builds on hold until the legalities are sorted. Nor is that even the most serious danger.
For many decades the UK has been a world leader in fusion research, pushing the boundaries and acting as a key player towards commercialising mankind’s own stars for energy. The Culham Centre for Fusion Research is the home of the Joint European Torus, a spectacular fusion reactor that has played an integral role in advancing this technology.
Leaving EURATOM also means an almost certain relegation of this institution to a secondary league, resulting in our intellectual leadership draining away.
As Britain is slowly transitioning away from a fossil fuel-based economy, the lights must still stay on. Renewables, despite promises from Greenpeace and their ilk, are simply not going to cut it on their own. We then either have to import gas from the Middle East, further threatening our energy security, or we continue with nuclear power.
Yes, Hinkley Point C is a public relations disaster for the nuclear cause. It should teach us that bigger is not always better, and the current generation of nuclear power reactors are the remnants of a bygone age, where the fear of all matters nuclear dictated nuclear power regulations.
Brexit could allow for a new start, for a Britain that is leading the way in nuclear innovation – we have the know-how and the resources. The UK once played a leading role in the development of nuclear power, and it is high time we take up the reins again. However, the possible isolation from EURATOM would leave the UK far less attractive for research and innovation.
Are we comfortable with giving away the intellectual leadership in nuclear power development to the Russians, seeing as no other Western country is taking up the challenge?
The decision, however, is not just bad for Britain but for nuclear power and technology as a whole. With the UK as one of the remaining bastions for the technology, weakening its strength in the field will give power to anti-nuclear campaigners across the continent.
The departure from EURATOM is likely to severely damage the UK’s nuclear industry, with impacts on energy security, industrial competitiveness and decarbonisation objectives. The government should reconsider and avoid the highly damaging consequences this unnecessary withdrawal could have on the our nuclear future.