Will an Independent UK Emphasize Nuclear Energy?
When the dust has had a chance to settle, effects of the UK voter decision to leave the EU on the UK nuclear energy and climate change mitigation programs will become evident. In the meantime, bloggers and other observers will continue to do what they do, which is to offer opinions in spite of enormous uncertainties.
Yesterday, I published a piece providing my own interpretations on what I think the Brexit will mean to the Hinkley C project as well as what it will mean to the UK nuclear energy program in general. I also touched on what I consider to be a logical extension of that argument to a comment on the effectiveness of the UK’s efforts to reduce CO2 emissions.
I also promised to share insights that I have received from other people that I consider to be experts, some who are UK citizens and residents and some who are observing from this side of the Atlantic.
Here is the common question that I posed to my sources.
I’d like your on the ground opinions about the effects that the Brexit vote will have on nuclear energy development in the UK. If you have any opinions on its effect on nuclear energy in the rest of the EU, feel free to offer those as well.
Andy Dawson is an energy sector systems consultant and former nuclear engineer who lives and works in the UK. He is a UK citizen. He provided me with a lengthy and thoughtful response. I’ll summarize it so that I can allow room for other responses.
First of all, Mr. Dawson declared himself to be a Brexit supporter. His reasons were left for another conversation, but nuclear issues played a minor role.
He noted that the UK has been significantly more open to nuclear energy than most traditional EU states and that the EU has issued a number of mandates for renewable energy production that specifically exclude nuclear. Austria and Luxembourg have actually gone to the European Court of Justice to challenge the deal done to encourage the first of a kind Hinkley C.
The huge project is worrisome to EDF unions and some managers because they are concerned that a failure to complete construction at an economic rate would put their pensions and other benefits at risk. As a company, EDF has announced that it remains committed to the project.
Dawson also believes that other UK nuclear projects based on Hitachi’s ABWR and the Westinghouse AP1000 will continue to move forward, if for no other reason than “those vendors have no other real options in Europe as launch pads for their designs.” He applied the same logic to the CGNPC Hualong-1.
According to Dawson, the EU has few free trade agreements with countries outside of the block. “It’s hard to see how Brexit would limit the ability to reach deals with new vendors” like South Korea.
Dr. John Bickel, a safety and reliability consultant who lives in the US but occasionally works in the UK, provided the following commentary.
It certainly ends the Austrian-Luxemburg challenges to issues of state support to British energy firms.
I just came back from two weeks in London on a legal case – and even the folks who wanted to stay in EU were getting totally fed up with what they saw as “outside meddling” in what should be UK sovereign affairs. Yes it will take two years for the divorce to go into effect – a lot can happen in two years but the goofy anti-nuclear policies of Brussels elites will not longer be driving the agenda in Britain.
The next two countries to watch will be France and Italy – where there are also sizable majorities that are tired of the EU meddling in their affairs.
Dr. Wade Allison is a UK citizen and resident. He’s an Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford and the author of several books including Nuclear is for Life: A Cultural Revolution and Radiation and Reason.
I was a Brexit voter for the very reasons you have articulated.
Today there are many in the UK who are surprised, shocked and horrified, but later they will appreciate the step that has been taken.
The barrage of advice and dire warnings about Brexit came largely from committees, bodies, corporations and institutions.
Noticeably, those speaking in favour of Brexit were individuals, some of whom are held in high regard, unalloyed by collective-think.
Many opinion formers in the UK are influenced by the anti-nuclear philosophy and politics of Germany and Austria that are backed by EU-wide regulations.
But plenty of UK voters object to being muzzled in this way — and nuclear is only one example.
The good news is that the UK will now be free to use its judgement on nuclear energy and work with others worldwide to ensure the future.
Steve Aplin, a well-known blogger and energy industry professional who publishes Canadian Energy Issues, noted that Brexit’s effect on nuclear is probably far larger than nuclear energy’s effect on the Brexit vote.
How much did “central” EU anti-nukery regarding Hinkley fuel the sentiment that drove the vote?
I bet it was a smallish factor that played at most a minor role in contributing to the anti-EU noise — if it was a factor at all.
After several correspondents chimed in with the opinion that nuclear energy considerations most likely influenced few, if any votes, Aplin responded.
I’m just testing the validity of interpreting the vote as, among other things, a rejection by Brits of a very wide ranging and deep seated view of environmental stewardship on the part of the predominant nation in the EU.
The World Nuclear Association published a detailed thought piece about the Brexit effects on a number of nuclear related issues. It did not add much that has not already been mentioned, but it mentioned potential negative effects on fusion research.
Professor Steve Cowley, CEO of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, told the BBC he was “very concerned” by the implications Brexit would have on funding research programs. Researchers are afraid, he said, that £55 million in annual European Commission funding would be withdrawn.
The Joint European Torus (JET) investigates the potential of fusion power as a safe, clean, and virtually limitless energy source for future generations. The largest tokamak in the world, it is the only operational fusion experiment capable of producing fusion energy. As a joint venture, JET is collectively used by more than 40 European laboratories.
Fusion research has no relationship to energy and climate change solutions. Until it can be demonstrated to produce a sustained output that exceeds the energy input requirements, it is merely an intriguing research problem. It’s had that status for the past 60 years and shows no indication of graduating to reliable power production for at least another 60 year years.
The engineering, technical and construction talent engaged in that activity could be put to more productive uses.
Update: (Added 6/28/16 at 10:45 EDT) Lenka Kollar, the owner and editor of Nuclear Undone is a native of Slovakia who is currently living in Austria. She provided the following thoughts.
Thanks for your recent post on Forbes about how Brexit will affect nuclear energy. I think that its a good post and I’m sure you’re received a number of comments on it.
I agree that, without EU regulation, it will likely grow in the UK but also think that, in the UK’s absence, countries like Germany and Austria will have more influence on EU energy policy and therefore you could see nuclear energy decrease in the rest of Europe. Austria has already successfully shut down reactors in neighboring Eastern European countries in exchange for entrance to the EU and I think we will see more of this because these countries benefit from EU infrastructure funds and have less bargaining power. The UK has usually been on their side, not only in terms of energy policy but also other regulation. So this could be great for UK energy policy but not so good for the rest.
It will be interesting to see what really happens in the next few years.
During the interval between publishing the above information on Forbes.com and now, I had the opportunity to watch a speech given by Amber Rudd, the UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. She was addressing the Business and Climate Summit: Working together to deliver real climate action, which was held in the City of London and attended by senior representatives of most of the heavy hitters in Britain’s energy and financial sector.
Read carefully, the speech contains broad hints of a sustained focus on using nuclear energy in order to fulfill — and perhaps exceed — climate commitments in a serious, measurable way. Here’s what I mean.
When The Rt Hon Amber Rudd MP said, “As a Government, we are fully committed to delivering the best outcome for the British people – and that includes delivering the secure, affordable, clean energy our families and business need. That commitment has not changed,” I started listening closely.
After a number of statements focusing on renewable energy achievements, I began to get a little concerned that the land of my ancestors had chosen to follow Germany into a technological dead end. Then the Right Honorable Secretary started to make some sensible statements. She said “We said that security of supply would be our first priority,” and I realized she couldn’t possibly be referring to wind or solar energy.
Next she said, “We have agreed to support up to 4GW of offshore wind and other technologies for deployment in the 2020s – providing the costs come down.” Her limitation told me that those offshore wind deployments will never occur; there few known ways to reduce the cost of building, deploying, operating and maintaining equipment in the harsh, at sea environment. The British people have known that since the 1600s.
The hinting halted with this clear statement of intent, “We remain committed to new nuclear power in the UK – to provide clean, secure energy.” She quantified the expectations, 18 GW of projects already being seriously developed, eventually employing at least 30,000 people directly in the construction effort and manufacturing effort.
During the 5-year spending review, the UK will devote at least £500 to innovation in energy systems focusing on systems that are “reliable, clean and cheap.” That sounded good, but the following sounded even better. “As part of that programme, we will build on the UK’s expertise in nuclear innovation. At least half of our innovation spending will go towards nuclear research and development…Our nuclear programme will include a competition to develop a small modular nuclear reactor – potentially one of the most exciting innovations in the energy sector.”
My sense is that the UK has gained enough experience with renewables to know they are incapable of supplying much more than they already do without massively depowering the economy. That is not the kind of prospect that will make already disillusioned citizens who voted in surprising numbers to get out from under onerous restrictions being imposed by the EU.
Nuclear energy success will expose annoyances like outlawing tea kettles and toasters as trivial, unnecessary gestures attempting to cover for the fundamental unreliability of weather-dependent power sources.
In a few years, we’ll be able to look back to use hindsight to evaluate the accuracy of the predictions.
Note: A version of the above first appeared on Forbes.com under the headline of How Will Brexit Affect UK Nuclear Energy? Variety Of Views. It is reprinted here with permission.
Photo Credit: Neil Stokes via Flickr