UK's post-Brexit nuclear plans face scrutiny
The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has launched a consultation until 14 September on draft regulations that aim to enable a domestic nuclear safeguards regime following the UK’s withdrawal from the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) as part of its departure from the European Union.
Meanwhile the House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee yesterday put questions to the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) on whether its Brexit preparations are on track, and a new report by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has been criticised for its limited support for the future of civil nuclear power in the UK.
The government has committed to establish a regime that will operate in a similar way to existing arrangements, but with changes made to regulations to ensure they are appropriate for the domestic, legislative and operational landscape in which they operate, BEIS said on 9 July. If passed into law, these proposed regulations will allow ONR to meet international obligations from day one of exit – 29 March 2019.
The domestic nuclear safeguards regime will replace the current arrangements provided by the UK’s membership of Euratom, and by the European Commission’s role in the trilateral agreements between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UK and Euratom.
Richard Harrington, parliamentary under-secretary of state at BEIS, said in a foreward to the consultation document that the UK “has long been a staunch proponent of the international nuclear safeguards that serve as a fundamental component of global nuclear non-proliferation”. He said: “Although we will be leaving Euratom, we remain firmly committed to the highest standards of nuclear safeguards and non-proliferation.
The draft Nuclear Safeguards regulations set out in this consultation are a concrete demonstration of this commitment. They will establish a new domestic safeguards regime for the UK that will provide coverage and effectiveness equivalent to that currently provided by Euratom and are the means by which we will exceed our international obligations.”
The civil nuclear industry is of “key strategic importance” to the UK, he said, and, “as we prepare to leave both the EU and Euratom, we have been clear that our decision to withdraw in no way diminishes our civil nuclear ambitions”.
On 7 June, the UK and the IAEA signed two new international safeguards agreements – the Voluntary Offer Agreement (VOA) and Additional Protocol – that will replace the trilateral safeguards agreements between the UK, the IAEA and Euratom that have been in place since 1978.
The Nuclear Safeguards Act, under which the draft Nuclear Safeguards Regulations will operate, has recently completed its passage through Parliament and received Royal Assent on the 26 June.
“This has provided a platform,” Harrington said, “from which to engage with all of our partners to ensure that the regime outlined in these draft Nuclear Safeguards Regulations will meet our needs.”
The draft regulations will be made under the powers contained in the Nuclear Safeguards Act 2018 and the Energy Act 2013. They reflect debates on nuclear safeguards in Parliament and incorporate feedback from the nuclear industry and wider stakeholder community obtained through government discussions on safeguards at the Euratom industry forums in September 2017 and March 2018. The next Euratom Industry Forum is planned for 19 July and will provide a further opportunity for the industry to provide feedback in addition to planned consultation workshops, BEIS said.
An internal ‘risk register’ leaked to Sky News in May indicated that ONR was falling behind in its efforts to prepare for Brexit, with a number of key issues being flagged as ‘red risks’, the sub-committee said. These include development of a new IT system for tracking nuclear material, recruitment and training of inspectors, securing funding, and obtaining access to the necessary equipment.
If ONR fails to establish its own safeguarding regime before leaving Euratom, the UK may be unable to import nuclear material, it said. “This could have severe consequences for energy security given that 20% of the UK’s electricity comes from nuclear generation,” it added.
Attending the meeting yesterday from ONR were Mina Golshan, deputy chief inspector and divisional director, and Peter Dicks, project lead for the UK State System of Accounting for and Control of Nuclear Material Project.
The chairman of the sub-committee, Lord Krebbs, put three questions to Golshan at the start of the meeting: the impact on the nuclear safeguards regime of whether there will be a ‘cliff-edge’ or longer transition period for the UK’s exit from the EU; the difference between Euratom and international nuclear safeguards standards; and the definition of ‘red’ on ONR’s risk register.
Golshan said she was confident ONR will meet its timeframes and objectives for delivery of a state system of accountancy and control for nuclear materials to enable the UK to meet its international obligations upon exit on 29 March 2019. “That has always been our assumption; it’s always been the project assumption that we need to deliver regardless of any [UK-EU] withdrawal agreement that may or not be concluded and agreed,” she said.
ONR is confident, she said, because it has met its recruitment targets, with the training of new nuclear safeguards inspectors now “well under way”. It has also procured an IT system – the Safeguards Information Management and Reporting System (SIMRS) – which will enable ONR to report to the IAEA and other partners in line with the VOA and Additional Protocol that the government recently signed with the Vienna-based agency and with third-party states – Australia, Canada, Japan and the USA. ONR is also developing its regulatory framework and operating model to implement the new safeguards regime in the UK, she added.
Asked about the distinction between Euratom- and international-level standards, Golshan stressed that it is international obligations that the UK needs to meet, and the terms of that are stated and agreed in the VOA and Additional Protocol.
“Under that we have to report on material and operations in certain eligible facilities as identified in the VOA; we need to facilitate independent verifications by the IAEA inspectors and we need to meet the requirements of the nuclear cooperation agreements under the terms. That is what the UK needs to deliver in order to meet its international obligations.”
She added: “Euratom is a regional regulator. They have their own arrangements, scope and coverage for the work that they do. And the safeguards reg that is currently in draft and out for consultation is aimed to deliver a regime in the UK that broadly is equivalent in scope and coverage to that currently delivered by Euratom. And I stress that it is equivalent rather than to replicate. There are good reasons for that. As a regulator for safety and security, we have other means of getting the intelligence and information that we need to draw up safeguards conclusions and we will do so, but it’s important to note that Euratom […] doesn’t have access to that set of information and intelligence and that is why it is appropriate for us to meet outcomes rather than simply replicate. The scope and coverage in the Euratom is broader than currently stated in the Voluntary Offer Agreement and we, as intended by the government, aim to cover that scope and coverage. So the number of facilities involved is simply larger.”
A risk register is a project tool and the colours are determined by the “impact and likelihood of a risk materialising”, she said. “We had a milestone that meant at a certain date we would have completed the procurement of the SIMRS. And we had missed that and so it was right and proper to indicate that.”
Need for nuclear
The report by NIC – which provides the government with impartial, expert advice on major long-term infrastructure challenges – says there is no need to “rush” to support future nuclear power plants projects.
It says: “In the longer term, an energy system based on low cost renewables and the technologies required to balance them may prove cheaper than building further nuclear plants, as the cost of these technologies is far more likely to fall, and at a faster rate. The National Infrastructure Assessment therefore cautions against a rush to agree government support for multiple new nuclear power stations and proposes that after Hinkley Point C in Somerset the Government should agree support for only one more nuclear plant before 2025. This would give flexibility to move towards newer low-carbon energy sources in future, while at the same time maintaining the UK’s nuclear supply chain and skills base.”
But Matt Rooney, engineering policy adviser at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, disagreed with NIC’s assessment that no more nuclear power is likely to be required after Hinkley Point C.
“The NIC report itself highlights the uncertainty in any modelling that projects decades into the future, and effectively throwing away one of the best options we have for low-carbon electricity would be a mistake,” he said. “The NIC admits that ‘no country has yet built an electricity system with very high levels of variable renewables’ yet is willing to take the risk of recommending such a strategy. Nuclear power should remain a part of our energy mix and if we do not get building soon we will lose the industry entirely and therefore the ability to build new plants. Such plants could be vital not just for electricity, but also for producing low carbon hydrogen for heat and industry in the future.”
Under a strategic investment agreement signed in October 2016, China General Nuclear (CGN) agreed to take a 33.5% stake in EDF Energy’s Hinkley Point C project, as well as jointly develop new nuclear power plants at Sizewell in Suffolk and Bradwell in Essex. The Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C plants will be based on France’s EPR reactor technology, while the new plant at Bradwell in Essex will feature China’s Hualong One design, which is currently going through the Generic Design Assessment process with the relevant UK regulators – ONR and the Environment Agency.
Responding to NIC report, Zheng Dongshan, CEO of CGN UK, said: “We have read the conclusions of the report from the National Infrastructure Commission with interest. It sets out a vision of the future which is not shared by most of those involved in energy policy every day. The overwhelming consensus is that the UK needs a balance of energy technologies, including nuclear power, to deliver a resilient, low carbon, system that is flexible enough to deal with all future scenarios.
“The government’s view is clear and consistent and was set out most recently when it published the nuclear sector deal. Our focus is on delivering on that policy vision, and in particular to play our part both in building and operating renewables assets in the UK and in contributing to the safe and efficient construction of the new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point C, and those projects that will come after it.”