For too long unions, industry and local communities have had to make the case for the future of the nuclear industry as part of a sustainable balanced energy policy without substantial support or clear policy direction from government.
The nuclear sector deal, which has been a long time in coming, must signal an end to that approach and trigger a new willingness from government to take an active role alongside industry and unions.
There is much to welcome in the sector deal including its emphasis on the whole nuclear life cycle; recognition of UK fuel manufacture as a strategic national asset; and support for small modular reactors (SMRs) and other advanced technologies with potential for transforming the energy landscape.
But there are significant challenges too – not least the very strong focus on the need for cost reduction.
There may well be cost savings to be made through adoption of different financing models, as we hope will be the case at Wylfa. But we must protect investment in skills, bearing in mind for example the complex and risky nature of decommissioning work. Dilution of this expertise is simply not an option.
A smooth planned cycle of investment is essential to ensure that valuable skills and experience are not lost as the industry develops. Otherwise our already weakened economy will suffer further and local communities could be devastated.
There is no clearer illustration than this of the need for an active industrial strategy based on genuine social partnership.
To be fair, the sector deal does recognise the positive role of unions.
However, it is worrying that the strong case that was made for a social partnership approach in the proposals submitted to government in December 2017, and published on BEIS’ website, has been severely curtailed.
Those proposals stated that ‘Unions have a vital role to play in the future of nuclear and should be at the heart of the sector deal’. It saw high level social dialogue at the centre, underpinned by similar arrangements at company level, as key to the industry’s success. It called for a joint approach to minimise disruption and build shared benefits.
Realising this ambition would require a serious long-term commitment from all parties based on mature and enduring relationships. Though the government may not be directly at the negotiating table, for sure it has an important role in setting the economic and social framework in which industry and unions must operate.
Of course, it’s ultimately actions not words that count. Nonetheless it is concerning that the language that set down such a clear marker in the December proposals has been substantially air-brushed.
This must be addressed very quickly by all members of the Nuclear Industry Council. Unions are in it for the long-term and we are an integral part of nuclear’s future.