In search of a nuclear renaissance

Hinkley Point and the Euratom problem

On 15 September Theresa May, the British prime minister, gave the go-ahead for a new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point, in south-west England. On 2 October, she announced that her government would start the two-year procedure that will eventually take the UK out of the European Union in the coming months, at the latest by the end of March 2017. To what degree these developments are harbingers of a ‘nuclear renaissance’ is a matter for debate.

At a cost of €21bn, Hinkley Point – the first nuclear power plant to be built in the UK in more than 20 years – will be the most expensive nuclear facility ever built. Two thirds of the cost will be financed by France’s EDF and one third by China General Nuclear Power Group. The British government will subsidise the plant for 35 years with a price guarantee two to three times higher than the current market price for electricity. The plant is expected to be operational by 2025, from which point it will supply 7% of the UK’s electricity needs.

An important question is whether Hinkley Point, after Brexit, will fall under the authority of the European Atomic Energy Community. Euratom was founded in 1957 by the Treaty of Rome, along with the European Coal and Steel Community and European Economic Community. The ECSC and the EEC became part of the EU, but Euratom remains a distinct legal entity.

Based on the Treaty of Rome and subsequent European treaties, all EU member states are Euratom members. But while a state can withdraw from the EU by invoking a procedure vested in Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, the Euratom treaty has no comparable exit procedure. Brexit’s consequences for British membership of Euratom have yet to be seriously examined.

In this context, the European Commission’s position is especially relevant. In April, it published the ‘Nuclear Illustrative Programme of the Commission’, a report commonly referred to as ‘PINC 2016’. This is the sixth report on nuclear energy the Commission has issued since Euratom’s creation in 1958, and the first since the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant in March 2011. For this reason, it pays particular attention to the issue of security at nuclear plants.

PINC 2016 is a treasure trove of information on the role nuclear energy plays in the supply of global electric power, as well as the investments needed to make it safer. Global nuclear-related investment needs are estimated at €3tn by 2050, much of this in Asia.

According to the report, the EU’s nuclear generation capacity will decline up to 2025. A slight increase is expected after 2030, with capacity eventually stabilising around 95-105 electrical gigawatts by 2050. Between 2016 and 2050, the EU’s share of nuclear electricity is expected to fall from 27% to 20%. The report also predicts that, by 2050, 90% of current nuclear capacity will be replaced and be subject to increasingly strict safety requirements. All new nuclear installations are designed to operate for at least 60 years.

And then there is the Paris climate accord and the role which nuclear energy will play in achieving its goals. The answer to this remains uncertain, for the time being. But China, together with the US, took the lead in ensuring that the accord was passed and ratified.

After Fukushima, Germany opted for ‘Atomausstieg’ (‘abandoning nuclear generation’) and many Dutch sympathise with the idea of denuclearisation, starting with the Netherlands. But the Chinese think very differently about these matters, as do the French and the British – as Hinkley Point shows.

Ruud Lubbers is a former Prime Minister of the Netherlands. Paul van Seters is Professor at Tilburg University. Both are Members of the OMFIF Advisory Board.

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