Centrica's exit isn't as big a deal as you think

Centrica withdrew from new UK nuclear projects.

Yesterday Centrica announced it would not take a 20 per cent share in the new nuclear power plant planned for Hinkley Point in Somerset. It was the minority partner with EDF, and leaves the France-based utility holding the entire (potentially £6 bn) can.

Centrica pulled out because of uncertainty on cost and schedule. No doubt its decision is a blow for the project to build a 1650 MW EPR pressurised water reactor—for which, by the way, EDF has not made a final investment decision. But there still are lots of reasons to hope that the project will still go ahead.

First, the current adverse market conditions favour nationalised utilities (or vendors) like EDF for nuclear new-build; whether it is Russia in India, Turkey, Belarus or China, or South Korea in the UAE, state-owned developers have the deepest pockets. They need them: unlike gas or coal, nuclear power plants demand most of their costs up front.

And those vendors that are not state-owned but wish to pursue nuclear new-build have had to act like it. In 2011, GE Hitachi proposed being a major investor in a new reactor for Lithuania (although those plans have probably been shot down by a referendum). Its corporate cousin Hitachi has recently come to the UK and is underwriting its pre-construction safety assessment (for now) as the new owner of nuclear new-build venture Horizon, after Germany-based utilities e.on and RWE sold out. They were beset by problems at home: after Fukushima, the German government quickly arranged a phase-out of all nuclear power plants. Over the next decade, their once-profitable assets will have to be written off.

One nuclear new-build vendor who has so far not pledged to take a share of a new-build project is France’s AREVA (79 per cent owned by the French state). However, its role as the principal contractor (with Siemens) for Finland’s Olkiluoto 3 has become tantamount to the same thing. To land the contract for the first non-France EPR, AREVA agreed with client TVO on a fixed-price contract. Subsequent delays and cost overruns have led to litigation with billions at stake.

Second, EDF’s purchase of British Energy in 2008 really only makes sense in the context of the opportunity for new-build. Seven of the eight nuclear power plants it bought at the time were based on obsolete technology whose potential for long-term operation was iffy (although their lifetimes will be extended by seven years in general). Those assets were not worth the £12.5 bn purchase cost. What was worth paying for, according to this idea, was lots of potential for new-build sites. Backing out now would harm the company’s future prospects.

Third, the UK branch of EDF, EDF Energy, has had a good 12 months. Its performance in 2012 was the best for seven years, which means not only cash in the bank but also a hopeful step away from technical faults that have hurt recent performance. Commercial production of the first units of its new 1300 natural gas plant in West Burton, Nottinghamshire started in 2012 and the rest are due to come online later this year. When Centrica joined EDF in new-build, it also put in a 20 per cent stake in EDF Energy’s operating nuclear power fleet. It has not announced plans to pull out of that investment.

The most important development for EDF’s new nuclear ambitions was that its nuclear reactor design was finally approved by the regulator at the end of 2012. Although it will still have to apply for a nuclear construction permit, obtaining design approval has broken the back of one of the biggest sources of nuclear new-build investment risk: the uncertainty caused by regulatory scrutiny. As of right now, the EPR reactor is the only modern nuclear power plant design that can be built in the UK. The Westinghouse AP1000 reactor is next in line; it is waiting for a customer to  finish the review process.

Will Dalrymple is editor of Nuclear Engineering International

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.