Exiting Euratom21 March 2017
NEI looks at the impact of Britain’s withdrawal from Euratom, gauging reactions from the nuclear industry.
The UK government’s (European Union) Notification of Withdrawal Bill was passed without amendment on 8 February, bringing the prospect of the UK leaving the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), closer to reality.
Founded in 1957, Euratom is involved in a wide range of nuclear-related activities including health protection, nonproliferation, supply of nuclear fuel and nuclear research. It is a separate legal entity from the European Union (EU), but is governed by EU institutions.
Perhaps most importantly for the UK’s nuclear industry, Euratom creates a common market in nuclear goods, services, capital and people within the EU. It has also established nuclear cooperation agreements that enable trade with countries outside of the EU, including the USA, Japan, Australia and Canada.
In its Brexit white paper the government said the precise nature of the relationship with Euratom would be a matter for the EU withdrawal negotiations. But it also noted that cooperation with the rest of the EU on nuclear matters will be an “important priority for the UK”.
Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the UK’s Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) and a former shadow energy minister, said in January that exiting the EU will cause serious disruption to supply and to “the ease of movement of nuclear goods, people and services that enables new build, decommissioning, R&D and other programmes of work to continue without interruption.”
The UK will need to come to new agreements with individual EU member states and secure nuclear cooperation agreements with every country with which the UK has ongoing nuclear trade.
Agneta Rising director general of the World Nuclear Association (WNA) noted: “The UK is an important market for new nuclear build, with companies around the world ready to bring billions of pounds of investment and provide thousands of jobs.” She called on the UK government to “ensure this can continue efficiently and that any new arrangements work in harmony with existing agreements.”
GMB, the union for workers in the nuclear sector, also warned that leaving Euratom will make it more likely that construction of the Hinkley Point C plant, which took a decade to reach financial close, will require amendments, causing potentially costly delays.
Safeguards and liability
The UK voluntary offer safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Euratom came into force in 1978 and specifies the UK’s acceptance of IAEA safeguards on all source or special fissionable material in the UK, subject to exclusions for national security reasons only.
The UK currently satisfies its safeguarding obligations through Euratom, with Euratom inspectors carrying out inspections of UK plant and inventories and submitting reports to the IAEA.
The UK government plans to seek an alternative agreement with the IAEA if it fails to agree “some sort of relationship” with Euratom during Brexit negotiations, according to the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis.
The main burden of the UK leaving Euratom will be the need for it to cover its nuclear nonproliferation safeguards commitment, according to John Large, of Large Associates Consulting Engineers. “For this it will have to either set up a separate, independent agency or bring these treaty responsibilities into the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR),” Large said. In practice, this is relatively straightforward. Although ONR will require more staff (and funding) to undertake the safeguarding work, the regime is well-established. According to ONR more than 100 UK facilities are subject to Euratom safeguards, and some 220 inspections (about 1000 person days of Euratom effort) were carried out during 2014.
Another area where the issue is fairly clear is in liability in the event of nuclear accident. The UK is a signatory in its own right to the Paris and Brussels agreements on third party liability and that has been specifically introduced into domestic legislation by the Nuclear Installations Act.
In its Brexit white paper, the government noted that the UK has a proud history of leading and supporting cutting-edge research and innovation within the EU and pointed out that the UK has “been the driving force” behind European and international research on nuclear fusion.
Euratom has its own research and development programme, which focuses on nuclear fission and radiation protection as well as nuclear fusion research. The Euratom research budget is €1.6 billion over five years. Most of this goes towards nuclear fusion.
The European Consortium for the Development of Fusion Energy (EUROFusion), which is funded by Euratom, warned that the UK’s withdrawal brings uncertainty to the future of the Joint European Torus at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire. JET receives funding of €69 million a year, 87.5% of which is provided by the European Commission and 12.5% by the UK. The current contract to operate JET runs until 2018; extensions beyond that are unclear.
As it exits the EU, the UK says it would welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives.
It may still be possible for the UK to remain in the EU’s research programme, as demonstrated by Switzerland, which makes a financial contribution to take part.