UK seeks close energy relationship with EU after Brexit

03 November 2017

The UK government's top priority is to agree arrangements with the European Union related to energy - particularly nuclear energy - that are as close as possible to current arrangements, the country's energy minister last week told a parliamentary inquiry into Brexit and the UK's energy security.

Richard Harrington - undersecretary of state at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) - gave evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union, Energy and Environment Sub-Committee on 25 October.

When asked about Brexit's effect on the UK's energy security, Harrington said: "As far as security of supply is concerned, I do not believe it will affect it because we have a very well-functioning, competitive and resilient energy system now." He added, "The capacity market, new nuclear, offshore wind and so on have helped a lot to [achieve diversity of supply]. I believe that government intervention generally - with contracts-for-difference and the capacity market options, for example - has made sure that we are not too dependent on any particular source of supply."

However, he told the committee that the UK benefits from electricity interconnections with other European countries. "Electricity connection is something that we think can deliver benefits in terms of both cost but also security in being part of the larger market."

The UK has 4 GW of electrical interconnection, with a further 9.5 GW having either received or seeking regulatory approval. Construction of two 4.4 GW interconnectors - with Belgium and Norway - is well advanced, he said. Since the June 2016 referendum vote in favour of leaving the EU, construction of two further interconnections - both with France - has also started.

"It suggests that is a growing area, and obviously trade as part of a broader bloc is a good and efficient way of getting the power we need and supplying the capacity," Harrington said. "We will always make sure we have sufficient energy security, whether through domestic or imported means, in the capacity market as well."

He told the committee he does not expect consumer energy costs to be significantly impacted by Brexit. "It is our policy to maintain an affordable energy supply for the UK, and for the EU it is the same." However, he noted: "We cannot assess the energy costs until we know what the new arrangements are, other than to say that I expect a solution that is as near to business as usual as we can possibly get it, and I see no reason why that would affect energy costs."

Nuclear research

Nuclear research is one of four priority areas identified by the government for discussion in the UK's future partnership with the EU. "As we have to keep saying, it is a subject for the negotiations, but it is a very high-priority issue when it comes to looking at what our future relationship with the European Union will be," Harrington said.

He noted that the British government has signalled its willingness to maintain nuclear research collaboration with European partners after the UK leaves the EU. It has committed to underwrite UK funding of the Joint European Torus (JET) fusion project at Culham. The underwriting of those funds will be until the end of 2020, Harrington said, noting this move had "received a lot of support within the industry".

"It is clearly our intention to agree a far-reaching science and innovation agreement with the EU. We want the framework for future collaboration that we have now," Harrington told the committee. "We hope to have a full and open discussion about it, when we can."

Euratom discussions

Harrington was also questioned about the impact of the UK leaving the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). He said the first round of negotiations has focused on the UK's separation from Euratom. "The key issues we have been looking at there are around the ownership of materials and equipment, and providing legal certainty about contracts that are in place. Those negotiations have been positive, broadly speaking."

He stressed to the committee, "Euratom is to do with safeguards - basically, non-proliferation. Safety is dealt with separately and will not change in the slightest. The current regulatory regime will remain."

David Pollock, a Labour member of the House of Lords, said he believed the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) has admitted it will have difficulty in the short-term, at least, in maintaining European standards of safeguarding once the UK leaves the EU.

Commenting on this, Katrina McLeay, head of safeguards and delivery at BEIS's Euratom exit team, said: "We are working very closely with the ONR to ensure that we meet our international obligations when we leave. We have made a commitment to reach Euratom standards." She said the ONR is making progress on recruiting staff and developing its IT system.

Harrington elaborated, saying the government is trying to ensure that the safeguards regime is "in place - and in place very quickly - when we leave Euratom". He said, "We are providing the money necessary to do it - set-up costs of approximately GBP10 million. That is for the IT platform and related things. We are negotiating with Euratom itself about the purchase and transfer of the kit that goes with it." However, he noted, "The money is not the relevant thing; I am sure that that can easily be agreed. The issue is the legal process. Recruitment is beginning, to recruit the necessary inspectors and qualified people to do it."

He said he has "every reason to believe" that the UK will have the necessary safeguards arrangements in place once it leaves the EU. Asked if some of the pre-existing arrangements could be kept in place if it is not achieved in time, Harrington replied: "I am sure that if we had to we might, but I do not think that it will be necessary."

"On the safeguards regime, we hope to replicate the powers that Euratom has, to do with safeguards in the UK. I do not think that there is an issue beyond that," he told the committee. "We have no intention of building a less effective form of regulatory regime - or, indeed, one that is directly controlled by government."

When asked about potential associate membership for the UK of Euratom, Harrington said: "It is not as though there is a pre-prepared associate membership option that we could elect to take. I cannot say directly that we would seek associate membership, because there is no definition of that. However, what we can seek - and are seeking - is an agreement that is as close as possible. Again, there is a mutuality of interest in doing that."

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News