UK minister discusses Brexit 'mitigation plans' for nuclear

25 October 2018

Claire Perry, minister of state for Energy and Clean Growth, has told parliamentarians her department has prepared for the eventuality there is no agreement with the European Commission on nuclear fuel contracts ahead of Brexit in March next year.

Perry spoke on 23 October to the House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee in a one-off evidence session. She was accompanied by Katrina McLeay, deputy director for nuclear at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and Jonathan Holyoak, the department's director of EU energy and climate change.

"I think it's fair to say that, as in every scenario where there is any form of risk, mitigation plans are being put in place. Regardless of the European Commission's approach to reapproving existing fuel supply contracts we will ensure there is adequate nuclear fuel available," Perry said.

McLeay said: "We don’t have sight of all the supply contracts because they are commercially sensitive to particular entities, but we do know which are the affected operators and we have been having discussions with them for over a year about what contingency plans they have put in place to ensure an adequate supply of fuel in the event there is a disruption in a no deal [on Brexit] situation. I've had conversations with those operators and they are experienced and have significant business interests at stake and they are very well progressed in the planning that they've made in my opinion."

As part of preparations for its exit from the EU and, at the same time, the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), the UK's Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) is establishing a domestic nuclear safeguards regime.

Asked about ONR's progress with this, McLeay said: "The work that ONR is doing to set up the new regime is going to involve them keeping quite a lot of the processes for nuclear that are important for accounts reports to be submitted as they currently are, so the changes for industry in the short term will be quite minimal, and guidance will be forthcoming to assist industry in making the changes that are needed."

She added: "We in BEIS have had a significant amount of outreach to industry in the process of developing the regulations that will be needed to put the new safeguards regime into place and the ONR has also been working very closely with industry on that point. The fundamental processes of reporting nuclear materials accountancy to ONR and then onwards to the International Atomic Energy Agency in discharge of our international obligations will remain broadly similar for industry."

The Euratom Supply Agency "won't formally conduct an assessment," she said, "but they will want to satisfy themselves about where material is moving to and the regime it is moving into, but the UK has already concluded bilateral safeguards agreements with the IAEA."

Perry was also asked about the UK's ability to continue collaboration in international nuclear research projects, including Europe's largest nuclear fusion device - Joint European Torus - located at Culham, Oxfordshire; the Iter fusion reactor, being built at Cadarache in the south of France; and fission projects with Euratom.

She said: "There is a very strong recognition of the value and the excellence of our research in this area. It's something we've talked a lot about in the Industrial Strategy as part of the Energy Transformation, we've announced a whole package of measures this month to support further work at Culham, including the funding. There has been a lot of interest in the tokomak for many years and in many parts of the world. We've also established a GBP180 million (USD231 million) nuclear research programme for nuclear fission. So, it's very much recognised as an area of focus and excellence, not only for the energy sector, but also for the Industrial Strategy."

Noting there are hundreds of UK nuclear researchers involved in these projects, McLeay said: "In a no-deal scenario the UK government is willing to discuss opportunities for nuclear researchers, companies and institutions to continue to collaborate in this critical research."

Asked about the longevity of government policy in view of the timelines required for nuclear projects, Perry said: "I went to see the progress of work at Hinkley [Point C] and was astonished at how much technical expertise and money was being directed into that part of the industry. Also, the Nuclear Sector Deal hopefully will give the Committee some comfort that there is a recognition as well of the need to look at other areas of research, particularly at small modular reactors, and the need to ensure the supply of domestically produced skilled workers for the industry over the long term."

Under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, before certain proposed statutory instruments (Brexit SIs) are formally laid in Parliament, they must go through a preliminary sifting process to determine the appropriate level of parliamentary scrutiny. Committees in both Houses of Parliament are responsible for this process.

BEIS has 73 Brexit SIs in total that are due for delivery by next March, of which 70 are on track, Perry said. Holyoak added that, "in the climate and energy space", the department has 28 SIs, of which four have been laid before Parliament already. "There are mature plans for all the rest of them to be laid before Parliament between now and December," he said.

Perry said: "Of course, we all don’t want to be in the no-deal place. Even though we think we could manage, we are very keen to do a good deal on behalf of those we represent and on behalf of EU citizens. However, it is entirely responsible that we do focus on no-deal planning."

She added: "I've been heavily involved in negotiating funding from the Treasury originally for the overall Brexit team, in working with the team to prioritise no-deal planning and to prioritise the legislative programme. It's obviously a government-wide issue and in Cabinet this morning we were discussing with the Leader of the House that, actually, we're making good progress, and so the challenge now is to make sure that everything gets through Parliament in good order before the exit date."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News