The issue of the security of our energy supply was given a brief flash of prominence last week when defence secretary Gavin Williamson warned that the Russians may target our energy infrastructure as part of an attack on the UK.
But the real challenge to our energy security is not the threat of foreign attack, it is the entirely self-inflicted sabotage that might occur as we leave the European Union.
There are serious concerns about energy supply after Brexit and whether the UK would be prepared for a surge in demand if, for example, there was a major weather event.
Last week, the House of Lords EU select committee published a report assessing the impact Brexit could have on the UK’s energy security, picking up on a number of concerns Prospect has highlighted.
One key concern is about having access to electricity supplies from Europe if we leave the EU’s internal energy market (IEM), which allows for free trade in energy between member states.
Once outside the IEM, we might have to pay more for electricity from the EU and supplies might not always be there when we need them. This is especially concerning since the government thinks we will import 25% of our electricity from Europe by 2025.
Some of the most pressing concerns relate to having enough skilled workers to do the jobs that keep the lights on. Prospect members, working at Hinkley Point, in the Office for Nuclear Regulation and doing Euratom work, are all potentially affected by energy policy changes triggered by Brexit.
Evidence from the committee’s report suggests that EU workers make up between 1% and 5% of the energy industry’s workforce. The low numbers disguise a reliance on EU nationals working in high density in specialised engineering roles. The roll-out of smart meters, for example, depends in part on EU workers.
Hinkley Point, the UK’s first new nuclear power station in a generation, will need 1,400 steel fixers when construction is in full flow, according to evidence given to the committee. There are only 2,700 currently in the UK, meaning Hinkley Point would take up more than half the capacity. In short, we will have a skills shortage.
Prospect has consistently called for guaranteed protections for EU nationals living and working in the UK. The nuclear industry relies on free movement of people.
The Office for Nuclear Regulation may also face a similar situation. There are genuine concerns about whether there will be enough time to train and recruit new people to work in this area.
While ministers continue to maintain that there will be minimal disruption, these are the kinds of pressure points that could result in real difficulties.
The report is right to highlight these issues and the challenges surrounding Euratom, the Europe’s nuclear free trade agreement. As it points out, there are big risks associated with exiting Euratom without putting in place an adequate alternative.
The consequences would pose significant challenges for energy security. The UK’s eight nuclear power stations provide 20% of the UK’s electricity need. Without an agreement in place before leaving the EU, the transportation and use of nuclear material could completely dry up. This scenario would have a significant impact on energy security.
The warnings are clear – energy security is key to the UK’s infrastructure and this bespoke industry needs a bespoke deal.