December 2014 – Why launch NNWE?

The launch of New Nuclear Watch Europe comes at a very opportune moment for the nuclear industry across Europe. The recent European Commission go-ahead for EDF’s Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant in the UK is a shot in the arm. It will boost confidence both in the nuclear industry itself and among policymakers and consumers alike about the way that low carbon forms of energy will help to ‘keep the lights on’ for decades to come.

The decision has been widely welcomed from the trade unions to the engineering community. Although there are detractors, with worries on price or safety, most people understand that if countries like the UK are to have a sustainable, low carbon energy mix then nuclear has to be a key component, helping us to achieve our carbon reduction goals and, in these challenging international times, strengthening Europe’s energy security.

Support for nuclear is growing in the UK. Despite a small recent dip, DECC’s latest figures show support for nuclear at 42% and the Nuclear Industry Association at 45%. However NNWE has undertaken research by the respected polling company ComRes and found 58% support for nuclear with only 22% against. This figure was backed up by clear majorities in favour of new nuclear build projects helping to give the UK affordable and reliable energy that helps to tackle our climate change targets.

Most interestingly, the polling also showed that nuclear (23%) has overtaken renewable energy sources such as solar (18%) and wind (15%) power in popularity. Three years ago a similar poll showed 19% support for nuclear compared to 25% for solar and 20% for wind. At NNWE however we don’t believe nuclear is competing with these renewable technologies. Rather we believe that the ability of nuclear energy to provide baseload power actually complements and supports the role of intermittent renewable energy sources.

Now that the Hinkley decision has pointed the way forward to help meet our energy needs, the next step is to ensure that European countries are comfortable with the safety performance of new nuclear and that each country gains a skills and employment premium from each new plant built. Those simple yet important points form the principles on which NNWE has been created to promote these ideals in conjunction with the efforts of other nuclear-focused organisations such as the Nuclear Industry Association.

Nuclear, particularly in Europe, has a very strong safety track record. We have developed high standards, some of which have been formulated in the light of accidents elsewhere in the world. Britain has played a very prominent role in this and the Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR) is deservedly respected around the world, not least for its independence and transparency. At the same time, we cannot rest on our laurels and as new nuclear increases its pace of development across Europe it is imperative that technological advances are placed under the same rigorous scrutiny that current technologies are subject to.

Like most energy sectors nuclear is a global market with technology being developed and commercially tested around the world. We welcome this international dimension and see it as helpful in increasing competition, driving down costs and creating efficiencies. Europe applies world-leading safety standards. However, as more and more international companies and technologies vie for a slice of the growing European market, with tempting finance packages coupled with a strong desire for low carbon technology, the very highest safety standards must be upheld.

NNWE’s view is that before nuclear technology which has been developed outside Europe is deployed in Britain it must, wherever possible, have a track record of safe commercial use in the country of origin or elsewhere outside the UK. This was backed up strongly by our ComRes polling which showed a 68% support for this stance. Only 11% supported the view that it should not be mandatory to have this track record even if it met the regulator’s requirements.

Interestingly this supports another piece of ComRes polling which shows, perhaps surprisingly in view of the international respect which is shown for the ONR, that only 11% of the public considered the regulator as the most trusted source with independent scientists (39%) and surprisingly, scientists in the energy sector (23%) being trusted more.

The same rigour on safety standards should apply for ensuring the safe and proper disposal of spent fuel in appropriate locations. We are lucky that in much of Europe issues around nuclear waste have broad public acceptance, as polling commissioned by NNWE has recently shown where 61% agreed that spent nuclear fuel could be stored in the UK and only 14% were against (24% were not sure). Sustaining that public support depends on not compromising these standards and we at NNWE will work hard to ensure that this is the case.

The other key principle for NNWE is to ensure that companies delivering nuclear projects in Europe do their utmost to benefit the local communities in which they operate. In order to increase public support for nuclear European consumers need to be able to see how their energy bills help to sustain and create jobs in their country and communities. This issue is particularly acute since few nuclear plants have been built in Europe in the last 30 years so much of the experience and skills have faded as universities, colleges and apprenticeship providers have concentrated on other engineering and energy sectors.

NNWE believes that nuclear operators must be supportive of the local communities and national economies in which they are operating. In our ComRes polling, when asked about the importance of creating new jobs, 76% of respondents said that ‘Knowing that the project would create many new jobs’ was important, second only to safety considerations (82%). We believe that companies or consortia delivering nuclear projects in Europe should be good neighbours. This means employing and investing in the indigenous workforce and partnering with companies across the entire supply chain, not just in low-level manufacturing, but particularly in R&D, engineering, technology and high-end manufacturing to benefit the domestic economy.

The UK think-tank, Civitas, recently published research which claimed that Britain risks losing its £4 billion-a-year nuclear industry unless the government does more to ensure that domestic firms benefit from projects to rebuild the UK’s generating capacity over the coming years. We must be particularly mindful of the risk that new nuclear plant developers may prefer to use their established supply chains outside Europe rather than seeking to develop local supply chains and skills in host countries. National governments understand this and developers recognise it but NNWE will work to hold developers and decision makers responsible to ensure their promises become reality.

As NNWE develops we will look to raise these twin objectives in as many forums as possible, aided by what we hope will be a growing and active membership. We do hope that companies and organisations who support our broad aims will be happy to join us and look forward to engaging with governments and regulators as well as the industry on these key issues.