Brexit shifts balance of nuclear debate in Europe, Yeo says

31 January 2017 9:56am

14 July 2016. By Laurel Henning.

A UK exit from the EU will change the balance of power among countries that support and oppose nuclear energy in the bloc, a former environment minister has said.

Tim Yeo told MLex that the shift could hamper the hopes of smaller EU states looking to use atomic power.

“Clearly, when the UK exits the EU, that will alter the balance between pro- and anti-nuclear countries,” Yeo said in an interview. “I hope the change in the balance of power will not affect those countries that want to maintain [atomic power].”

Yeo served as the UK’s minister for environmental policy from May 1993 to January 1994 during the government of Conservative Prime Minister John Major. After Labour leader Tony Blair came to power in 1997, Yeo began a seven-year run of scrutinizing government policy while in opposition in areas including trade and agriculture, as well as environment.

Following a vote last month to leave the EU, the UK must negotiate a new relationship with the bloc. “Britain would have been in a stronger position inside the EU than outside it,” Yeo told MLex.

Commenting on how Brexit will affect Europe’s nuclear-power industry, Yeo said that “roughly half of member states [support] nuclear.”

The four countries with the biggest EU populations — France, Germany, Italy and the UK — have the greatest weight in government voting on European policy, under the bloc’s “qualified majoirty” voting system. Germany has said it plans to stop using nuclear power before 2022 and France gets most of its energy from atomic power, but plans to invest more in renewable energy.

Italy held a referendum in 1987 on nuclear power following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and closed all of its plants by 1990.

With the UK out of the EU, future nuclear policies could be more influenced by German, French and Italian interests.

If anti-nuclear sentiment grows, smaller EU countries, such as Slovakia — which gets over half of its power from nuclear energy — should work with its neighbors to develop projects and standards, Yeo said.

Yeo chairs a small nuclear industry group, New Nuclear Watch Europe, whose 11 members include Alstom and the Korea Electric Power Company. The group promotes new funding for the industry and campaigns for pan-European nuclear standards.

“The more we can achieve common standards . . . the more we can bring costs down” for nuclear technology, Yeo said. Those standards wouldn’t just be for handling nuclear waste, he said.

Cost represents a serious barrier to the development of nuclear power in the bloc, he said. The expense of atomic technology stems partly from the variety of national standards across the EU, but also from environmental regulations imposed on companies that build and operate atomic-power plants.

Companies that operate plants powered by fossil fuels have lower costs partly because they aren’t held as accountable for environmental damage they cause, Yeo said.

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