A vision for the UK3 August 2017
David Flin reports from a recent seminar in London where issues surrounding the UK’s nuclear future were discussed.
On 6 July, the Westminster Energy, Environment, and Transport Forum held a seminar on the UK nuclear industry, looking specifically at international relationships and industrial strategy.
Twelve speakers gave brief presentations about the UK nuclear industry, many with particular reference to the issues involved in the UK leaving the European Union.
Overall, the conference recognised that while the UK had a positive attitude towards the development of new nuclear construction, some issues have arisen, many as a result of Brexit. Schedule slippage, skills shortages, and other uncertainties are making progress challenging.
Several speakers look at the issues associated with the UK leaving Euratom. The general view ranged from exiting Euratom was unwise and could cause difficulty, to the decision to leave is “idiocy”. Leaving Euratom puts the UK into a new situation, as it has been part of Euratom for over 50 years.
Dr Jenifer Baxter, Head of Energy and Environment for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, explained some of the consequences of leaving Euratom, including the need to develop a new safeguards regime and for the Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR) to develop powers to oversee waste disposal.
Baxter pointed out that it takes five years to train people to meet the standards required for a safeguards regime, and that there are 20 months left before the UK officially leaves Euratom.
Matthew Clarke, from the Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, said that the Government is committed to ensuring that safeguarding would be into place and that developing this can now start.
New build uncertainty
The combination of new nuclear build and a liberalised electricity market makes the UK situation one that many countries are watching with interest, said Paul Howarth, CEO of the National Nuclear Laboratory. He said that the Nuclear Industry Council is looking at developing a long-term horizon, which needs a "compelling vision."
The question was asked if it is was a sensible new build policy for Britain to be using several different reactor designs, with the EPR, the ABWR, and the APR1400 all under consideration. Howarth said that it was because, in 50 years, a variety of designs will be required.
Other speakers talked about the situation relating to construction workers. The schedule for Hinkley Point C has slipped, and as a consequence, development of several new nuclear plants in the UK is likely to take place simultaneously. Alistair Smith, Nuclear Development Director for Costain, estimated that by 2026, the nuclear industry might require 30,000 nuclear-qualified construction workers. It is highly unlikely that the UK will be able to train sufficient numbers of employees in the time available. However, it is not clear whether the UK will be allowed to employ sufficient numbers of workers from abroad to meet requirements.
Slippage of construction schedules has also made it difficult to retain staff. In some cases, people have undergone training, with the expectation that they would be needed immediately, and are now seeking work elsewhere.
One alleviating technique for reducing the number of construction workers required is to increase the level of modular construction at the factory rather than on-site.
Small modular reactors (SMR) have a lot of potential, with several export possibilities to both remote communities looking for reliable, low-carbon sources of power. David Orr, Director of Future Programmes and Technology, Nuclear for Rolls-Royce, said that SMRs were a partial solution and not a total solution. Profitable production of SMRs depends on the economy of volume rather than the economy of scale.
A stable government policy is essential for developing SMR projects. It is also important to avoid re-inventing the wheel and to enable an efficient use stakeholder resources.
Another factor considered by the conference was the development of the UK supply chain. Several speakers commented that they felt that this was possibly the most crucial aspect of ensuring a successful nuclear renaissance in the UK, and certainly an issue comparable in importance to financing and sorting out of the regulatory system.
Since the seminar, the UK Government has raised the possibility that it might apply for associate membership of Euratom, along the lines of Switzerland. Should associate membership be gained, that will resolve or reduce many of the problems raised at the seminar.
The UK government's Department for Exiting the European Union (EU) published a position paper on 13 July on nuclear materials and safeguards issues, as part of the UK's Article 50 negotiations with the EU, insisting that Brexit must also include leaving the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). The UK invoked Article 106(a) of the Treaty establishing Euratom at the same time as Article 50 of the Treaty on the European Union, reflecting the fact the treaties of the EU and Euratom are "uniquely legally joined", the position paper said.
The 1957 Euratom Treaty uses the same institutions as the EU, including the European Court of Justice. David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, told the House of Commons in January “The 2008 EU Amendment Act makes clear that, in UK law, membership of the European Union includes Euratom that's why Article 50 applies both to the European Union and Euratom.”
Although lawyers and politicians over the past weeks have disputed this, arguing that membership of the EU and Euratom are separate agreements, the European Commission (EC), in a separate position paper, also maintains that the two are inextricably linked.
Publication of the UK position paper was timed to coincide with the government's EU (withdrawal) bill. It makes 13 references to Euratom, with forms the basis for UK cooperation with Community on civil nuclear issues including safeguards arrangements, cooperation in nuclear research and development, the mobility of workers, trade, and wider nuclear regulatory cooperation.
The government said that "While the UK is leaving Euratom we want to continue working closely with the Euratom Community to help ensure a smooth and orderly exit and to pave the way for a future relationship that benefits the UK and the remaining 27 member states."
The paper puts forward five principles intended to smooth the transition to a UK nuclear safeguards regime with no interruption in safeguards arrangements. These include:
- providing certainty and clarity to industry and others wherever possible;
- collaborating on nuclear research and development to maximise the benefit of shared expertise and resources;
- minimising barriers to civil nuclear trade for the industry in the UK, Euratom and third countries;
- ensuring mobility of skilled nuclear workers and researchers; and
- collaborating on areas of wider interest, including regulatory cooperation and emergency preparedness.
The document highlights the importance of agreeing on the future ownership and liabilities for safeguards equipment located in the UK but currently owned by Euratom. “The UK will ensure that all necessary safeguards equipment is in place to comply with its [International Atomic Energy Agency] obligations." It said that consideration will be given to the possibility of the UK taking ownership of existing Euratom-owned equipment, adding that, "This will need to be rooted in a common understanding of the fair value and liabilities of the equipment concerned, and interactions with the EU budget.”
The ownership of all special fissile material that is currently with the Euratom Community and is present on UK territory on the date of withdrawal should transfer to those with the right to use the material in line with Article 87 of the Treaty, the paper says. It notes that contracts for the supply of nuclear material between operators in the UK and Euratom, which have been approved by the Euratom Supply Agency and EC, "should remain valid and not require any further approvals".
Appropriate arrangements will need to be agreed to ensure that use fuel and radioactive waste remain the responsibility of the state they were generated in, as is currently the case under Community Law. But the paper noted that this should not affect the right of the UK, or any effort in the UK, to return radioactive waste after processing to its country of origin.
There are many complex issues to be resolved. Nuclear Industry Association CEO Tom Greatrex said: "While containing very little detail, the UK government's position paper demonstrates the complexity of replicating Euratom arrangements in UK regulation and cooperation agreements with third countries".
"The government must make the need for transitional arrangements its starting point in negotiations. Failure to do so will risk precisely the disruption the government state they want to avoid.”
He added: "It remains the UK nuclear industry's view that retaining Euratom membership will best serve the national interest. It may also be the most straightforward, seamless and sensible way to achieve the government's stated preferred outcome is through the associated membership [which] the Euratom Treaty enables. Exploring that should be a priority in discussions with European institutions.”
Greatrex noted that the issue of resolving safeguards and the ownership of fissile nuclear material before March 2019 is a critical one, but is just the first of many issues needing resolution. “In parallel with this intricate negotiation, the government needs to establish a new UK safeguarding regime, replicate the current trading arrangement with the Euratom Community, ratify new nuclear cooperation agreements with key nuclear markets outside of Euratom, establish a new funding regime for the UK to continue its involvement in world-leading nuclear research and development, and ensure the mobility of nuclear specific skills to and from the UK,” he said.
In an interview with the BBC, Brexit Secretary David Davis has suggested the UK could have an "association agreement" with the EU to replace its membership of Euratom. He said an "arbitration arrangement" would have to be agreed.
However, the decision to leave Euratom continues to cause concern in the scientific community and the nuclear industry including fears it could affect safety, transportation of materials and access to cutting-edge research.