A perfect storm is casting a shadow over the nuclear industry, yet the issue remains largely ignored in the general election. Given the scale of challenges facing the UK with Brexit, renewing our energy infrastructure and meeting our climate targets, this is worrying. It is also why our politicians need to talk about nuclear power.
Energy policy can’t just be about consumer prices. We also need a debate about infrastructure and fixing the kit that keeps business and households in power. Nuclear energy provides about 21% of our electricity but almost half of this capacity is due to be retired by 2025.
At the same time construction of Britain’s first new nuclear power plant in 20 years at Hinkley Point C in Somerset has taken its first tentative steps, though new questions are emerging in the light of Brexit.
The UK is a world leader in nuclear power generation, research, engineering, waste management and decommissioning.
We are the originators of the world’s first civil nuclear engineering programme and have the pioneers to lead the next wave of technological advances. Our highly-skilled workforce, many of whom are Prospect members, are the envy of other countries.
Yet, the storm clouds are still gathering and we need the certainty and active involvement of any future government to deliver the skills and investment the sector needs.
The government’s industrial strategy has been a good start. Business secretary Greg Clark has clearly identified nuclear as important and the industry is one of five selected for a new government “sector deal”, signalling a more active government role.
The re-establishment of the Nuclear Industry Council as a coordinating body between business, government and unions, and to oversee the new sector deal, is also welcome. Yet the challenges remain.
The industry is beset by uncertainty on almost every front:
- future investment in new power plants
- the role of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority in procurement
- our trading ability in the light of Brexit and the connected decision to leave the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom)
- a lack of progress or visibility for the government’s own competition to develop small modular reactors and
- on skills.
As Iain Wright, the outgoing chair of the BEIS select committee, said just before Parliament was dissolved for the election: “The impact of Brexit on Euratom has not been thought through… The continued operations of the UK nuclear industry are at risk… The government now has a responsibility to end the uncertainty hanging over the industry and ensure robust and stable arrangements to protect trade, boost research and development, and ensure safeguarding of the highest level.”
These are big issues not just for our Brexit negotiators, but for anyone worried about energy policy and meeting our carbon reduction targets, as well as for the communities, workforces and their families who rely on nuclear for their livelihoods.
Delays and failures
It’s not just about Brexit. Concerns over the future of the proposed new power plant at Moorside in Cumbria, following the US bankruptcy of consortium partner Westinghouse and the financial difficulties of its parent company Toshiba, are symptomatic of a legacy of delays that need to be addressed.
The NDA’s handling of the Magnox decommissioning contract – now the subject of an independent inquiry – is another case in point. Failures in the procurement process led to taxpayers forking out £100m in compensation to a losing bidder and the termination of the winner’s contract.
This was an extraordinary situation given the scale and importance of the Magnox contract to the UK nuclear industry. These events should be a wake up call.
Energy Minister Jesse Norman has made a good start on listening to industry voices, but we need backing across the whole government and from all the parties fighting for votes.
Vision for the future
Prospect has always argued for a balanced energy policy that includes nuclear, renewables and clean coal. Our highly regulated nuclear industry and the low-carbon electricity it generates is essential to ensuring security of supply and keeping the lights on.
But we need a long-term vision that puts the right focus on developing the skills and workforce required to deliver on new build, research and innovation.
Alongside this, a future government must also demonstrate that it values the professionals cleaning up our nuclear legacy by protecting their pay, pensions and communities.
The UK could be leading the world on fusion, small modular reactor technologies and decommissioning. To make this happen we need the right regulatory framework, political support, investment in skills and answers on Brexit.
The global decommissioning market alone is worth more than an estimated £150bn. The UK needs a nuclear champion to develop the skills and capacity we need to thrive and to share in this global market. And we need the political drive to see this through – and the politicians willing to make it happen.
Mike Clancy is the general secretary of Prospect, the largest union representing staff working in nuclear, and a member of the government’s Nuclear Industry Council. He tweets at @mikeclancy1