UK-led nuclear group could be future of atomic industry, Yeo says

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3 March 2017. By Emily Waterfield.

A new group of pro-nuclear countries developing atomic power plants around the world is an economic prize worth fighting for, former British minister Tim Yeo has told MLex.

Yeo said the new organization, designed to fill gaps created by the UK's exit from an EU nuclear-cooperation treaty, would help cut the cost of new reactors and spread British expertise.

"We want to minimize the impact from Brexit," said Yeo, the chairman of pro-nuclear campaign group New Nuclear Watch Europe.

"There are some functions that Euratom performs which pro-nuclear countries need performed by somebody," he said. These include ensuring compliance with the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, designed to prevent the spread of atomic weapons, and maintaining a single market in nuclear goods.

The UK in January announced that it would withdraw from the EU nuclear trade and safety treaty, known as Euratom, at the same time as leaving the EU.

Yeo hopes that an alliance between advocates of atomic energy — including former Communist countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Lithuania, but also more broadly around the world — could build on many of the roles taken by Euratom.

The "Organization for Nuclear Cooperation and Development in Europe" — the name provisionally given by Yeo to his idea for a new group endorsing atomic power — would "obviously include pro-nuclear member states," as well as non-EU neighbors such as Belarus, Turkey, Ukraine and "possibly even Russia," he said.

He said New Nuclear Watch Europe hoped to publish plans for the group later this month, once UK premier Theresa May has formally started talks on leaving the EU.

"We are working on the legal basis [for a new group]," he said. "This is crucial."

Yeo served as environment minister under Conservative Prime Minister John Major in 1993 and 1994, and chaired the UK energy and climate change select committee under David Cameron from 2010 through 2015.

'Significant challenge'

Part of the new group's remit could also be looking for ways to bring down the cost of new nuclear power plants, Yeo said during the interview.

"This is a really significant challenge right now," he said. Cost reductions for renewable-energy technologies such as wind turbines and solar panels haven't been reflected in the atomic industry, which has seen costs rise on the back of increasingly stringent safety standards.

Atomic power "has to stay for greenhouse-gas emission cuts," Yeo said. But under Euratom, "it has never been a priority to make nuclear more cost-competitive."

The 18 billion pound ($22 billion) bill for the UK's planned Hinkley Point power plant, a joint venture among the UK government, France and China, has faced particular criticism.

"If we set up an organization, making nuclear cost-competitive while remaining safe . . . we can at least get more cooperation between regions," Yeo said. "Some of the alternative vendors can supply [nuclear technology] more cheaply."

"We are looking with interest at Korea, and also at Rosatom in Finland," he said.

South Korean utility company Korea Electric Power Corporation, or Kepco, is involved in the design and maintenance of reactors in markets including China, Egypt and Ukraine. In Finland, Russia's Rosatom has joined efforts to build a 7 billion euro power plant with Finnish nuclear power company Fennovoima.

"I think that within the next five years, we can see nuclear plants here in safe operation," he said.

Hopeful, not confident

A director at the government's nuclear-safety regulator said earlier this week that Britain would need more than two years — the time formally given to negotiate departure from the EU — to agree on a replacement for Euratom.

Yeo said it was "not hard to imagine negotiations taking four years," but admitted that even this was an optimistic timescale. "The legal framework is quite complex," he said.

"I am hopeful rather than confident" about setting up a pro-nuclear group of countries soon, he said. "It's worth a try. The prize is significant."

Nuclear industry and research officials have warned that exiting Euratom would leave Britain at risk of losing talent and materials to other countries.

Yeo has previously said that Brexit would lead to a "rebalancing" of interests in the EU when it comes to atomic power. The UK is one of the EU's main supporters of nuclear power, meaning that its departure would increase the influence of heavily antinuclear countries — primarily, Germany, which is phasing out the use of atomic energy and would like to see other countries requesting approval from neighbors before making new nuclear investments.

But Yeo says "this threat can be converted to an opportunity," if once out of EU structures, the UK builds an international alliance of pro-nuclear countries.

"This would need a very positive role to be played by the government, which is rather overstretched," he warned.

But for the UK, the ability to share expertise such as decommissioning skills with other countries would be "a huge commercial opportunity," he said. England hosts a major nuclear waste-reprocessing plant at Sellafield in Cumbria, where it is responsible for decommissioning, or safely cleaning up, radioactive materials after use.

Countries including South Korea are now looking to the UK to help them dispose of atomic waste, he said. "We have an economic prize here, if we can just get it right."

Yeo also worked as the opposition "shadow" minister with portfolios including environment, agriculture, trade and industry from 1997 through 2005.

He founded New Nuclear Watch Europe at the end of 2014. Industry supporters include Kepco and Rosatom, along with French multinational Alstom and British engineering company Goodwin International.