European Nuclear Energy Forum, Prague – Notes from our Chairman

Full marks to the organisers who chose Prague for this year’s European Nuclear Energy Forum. The peaceful and traffic free streets in the centre of this beautiful and historic city are a joy to stroll in, though the Forum’s busy agenda this week left little time to explore.

The mood at this gathering of Government ministers from nine countries, European Commissioners and officials, regulators and business leaders combined sober realism with an element of cautious optimism. Nobody present underestimated the scale of the challenges which lie ahead if new nuclear is to be deployed across the EU at scale but scarcely anyone questioned the ability of the nuclear industry to overcome them.

Few industries have such entrenched opponents as nuclear and certainly none face such unremitting scrutiny of their safety record and business practices. If a century ago the coal industry had been subjected to the standards which have been quite properly required of nuclear by regulators and governments then its price today would be vastly higher, its consumption much lower and millions of premature deaths would have been avoided.

The standout messages from the Forum were the strongly held conviction that nuclear has an absolutely essential role to play in delivering the EU’s energy security and climate change goals, the determination of the industry to address concerns about safety and waste issues and the continuing need to win wider public support for nuclear new build.

Much of the debate in the plenary sessions and outside in the corridors was about what the EU’s progress towards energy union means for nuclear. The conclusion was that it’s too early to judge. The next few months are an opportunity for the industry to press its case but the process is not without risks. Sensitivity will be needed if nuclear is to capture the moment.

What is clear is that reconciling the right of EU member states to decide their own energy mix with the goal of energy union is still work in progress. Britain wasn’t represented at ministerial level at this important event, presumably because the new team at DECC hasn’t yet had a chance to get its feet under the desk but if ministers had been present they might have been pleasantly surprised by the praise heaped on the electricity market reforms carried through by the outgoing coalition government.

The regard in which British energy policy is held is a reminder of the opportunity Britain has to influence the shape of energy union. Only by engaging actively in the process, however, can that opportunity be seized. That applies to nuclear as much as to anything else.