Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Forget the Russians, Brexit is the real risk to our energy security

Without a bespoke deal for the energy sector, we could see the lights go out, warns Prospect assistant general secretary Sue Ferns

Every day all over the country, including the heart of government, people turn on lights, charge their phones, boil kettles, stay warm in heated buildings and type away on their computers.

They are able to do this because the United Kingdom has energy security. People know that when they want to turn on a light there is enough electricity supply to do that.

The issue of the security of our energy supply was given a brief flash of prominence last week after defence secretary Gavin Williamson warned that the Russians may target our energy infrastructure as part of an attack on the UK.

But the real challenge for energy security in the coming years is not the threat of foreign attack, it is the entirely self-inflicted sabotage that might occur as we leave the European Union.

There are serious questions about energy supply after Brexit and whether the UK would be prepared for a sudden surge in energy demand, if for example, there was a major weather event.

Last week, the House of Lords European Committee published a report assessing the impact Brexit could have on energy security – picking up on a number of concerns Prospect has highlighted.

One key concern is around having access to electricity supplies from Europe if we end up leaving the EU’s internal energy market, which allows for free trade in energy between member states. Once outside the IEM, we might have to pay more for electricity from the EU and supplies might not always be there when we need them. This is especially concerning since the government thinks we will import 25 per cent of our electricity from Europe by 2025.

Some of the most pressing questions relate to having enough skilled workers to do the jobs that keep the lights on. Prospect members, working at Hinkley Point, in the Office for Nuclear Regulation and doing Euratom work, are all potentially affected by energy policy changes triggered by Brexit.

Evidence from the report suggests that EU workers make up between one and five per cent of the energy industry’s workforce. The low numbers disguise a reliance on EU nationals working in high density in specialised engineering roles. The roll out of smart meters, for example, depends in part on EU workers.

Hinkley Point, the UK’s first new nuclear power station in a generation, will need 1400 steel fixers when the construction is in full flow, according to evidence given to the committee. There are only 2700 currently in the UK, meaning more Hinkley Point would take up half the capacity. In short we will have a skills shortage.

Prospect has consistently called for guaranteed protections for EU nationals living and working in the UK. The nuclear industry relies on free movement of people.

The Office for Nuclear Regulation is also at risk of having to deal with a similar situation. There are genuine concerns about whether there will be enough time to train and recruit new people to work in this area.

While ministers continue to maintain that there will be minimal disruption – these are the kind of pressure points that could result in real difficulties.

The Lords report is right to highlight these issues and the challenges surrounding Euratom, the Europe’s nuclear free trade agreement. As the report points out, there are big risks associated with exiting Euratom without putting in place an adequate alternative.

The consequences would pose significant challenges for energy security. The UK’s eight nuclear power stations currently provide 20 per cent of the UK’s electricity need. Without an agreement in place before leaving the EU, transport and use of nuclear material could completely dry up. This scenario would have a significant impact on energy security.

The warnings are clear – energy security is key to the UK’s infrastructure and this bespoke industry needs a bespoke deal.

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Sue Ferns is senior deputy general secretary of Prospect. She tweets at @FernsSue

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