UK joins Europe’s Horizon and Copernicus programmes

12 September 2023

The UK Government announced that UK researchers can now apply for grants and bid to take part in projects under Europe’s Horizon science R&D programme. The UK will be participating as a fully associated member for the remaining life of the programme to 2027. UK membership. The announcement also stated that the UK will associate to Copernicus, the European Union’s (EU's) Earth observation programme. However, it will not associate to the Euratom Research & Training programme (Euratom R&T) and by extension, the Fusion for Energy (F4E) Programme although there is an agreement to cooperate specifically on nuclear fusion.

The UK had been excluded from these programmes following its Brexit decision. Although associate membership had earlier been agreed in 2021 as part of the UK-EU Trade & Cooperation Agreement (TCA), differences over Northern Ireland issues had stalled implementation. The Windsor Agreement in February resolved these issues. At that time, Vivienne Stern, chief executive of Universities UK, noted: "The removal of this political roadblock must now lead to the rapid confirmation of UK association to Horizon Europe, Copernicus and Euratom, as set out in the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement.”

However, the UK announcement noted: “In line with the preferences of the UK fusion sector, the UK has decided to pursue a domestic fusion energy strategy instead of associating to the EU’s Euratom programme. This will involve close international collaboration, including with European partners, and a new, cutting-edge alternative programme, backed by up to £650m ($811m) to 2027. It will ensure UK taxpayer funding is spent in the UK’s best interests.”

Euratom – the European Atomic Energy Community – was originally established by the European Coal and Steel Community, a predecessor of the EU, to provide a regulatory basis for the civilian nuclear activity. It implements a system of safeguards to monitor the use of civil nuclear materials, controls the supply of materials within EU member states, and funds leading international research. The UK became a member when it joined what became the EU in 1973.

Commenting on the UK decision not to re-associate with Euratom, the European Commission noted: “The UK has decided not to pursue its association to Euratom and Fusion4Energy/ITER [the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor]. This decision is guided by the UK’s assessment that its industry’s long absence from Euratom and F4E/ITER programmes cannot be reversed.”

An announcement from the UK Department for Energy Security & Net Zero (DESNZ) said the Government “plans to put in place an ambitious and cutting-edge suite of new, alternative R&D programmes to support the UK’s flourishing fusion sector and strengthen international collaboration, in support of the UK Fusion Strategy. This is following the decision to not associate to the Euratom Research and Training programme (Euratom R&T) and by extension, the Fusion for Energy Programme.”

To deliver this package the government plans to invest up to £650 million until 2027, subject to business case approvals. “This is in addition to the £126 million announced in November 2022 to support UK fusion R&D programmes. Further details on the alternative programmes will be set out later in the Autumn. We remain very open to collaboration with the EU and other international partners, and this will form a key part of this new programme of work.,” DESNZ said.

The new alternative fusion R&D package will include:

  • new facilities, specifically to grow new fusion fuel cycle capabilities and support innovation;
  • a new fusion skills package, to ensure that we develop the skills and capability needed to deliver on our fusion strategy;
  • further support to strengthen international collaborative projects;
  • other measures to accelerate the commercialisation of fusion including boosting our world leading Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production programme.

The statement continued: “Given delays to association and the direction of travel of these EU programmes, an alternative approach gives the UK the best opportunity to deliver our fusion strategy by driving job creation, investment and growth in our world-leading fusion sector. This ambitious domestic programme fully aligns with the core principle of international collaboration in the UK fusion strategy, and we remain open to such collaboration including with the EU and ITER (the large international fusion experiment being built in France). However, we believe the UK can be of most use to the global fusion mission outside the Euratom R&T framework.”

Minister for Nuclear & Networks Andrew Bowie said: “Today’s investment is a game-changer for the UK. It gives us the best opportunity to create jobs, investment and, ultimately, economic growth. And it gives our talented science community the opportunity to work with experts all around the world. It will also secure the country’s position as a world-leader in fusion, meaning we could become the first to commercialise this exciting new technology as a clean and secure source of energy.”

Dr Nick Walkden, UK Director of the Fusion Industry Association (FIA) said FIA “welcomes the UK Government’s ambitious new £650m programme for fusion development and commercialisation as an alternative to Euratom association. The Government’s proposed alternative programme will be ambitious, exciting, and commercially focussed, representing a unique opportunity and an effective use of public funds at a critical time in the effort to develop and deploy fusion energy. We therefore welcome today’s announcement, and look forward to a rapid adoption of the UK Government programme of alternative interventions as soon as possible.”

UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) CEO, Professor Sir Ian Chapman, said: “UKAEA welcomes the clarity about our future relationship with the Euratom Research and Training programme which provides the certainty needed by the sector.”

He continued: “The government’s commitment to an ambitious alternative R&D programme will be hugely important in sustaining the UK’s position as a leader in fusion R&D as well as developing an industrial capability to deliver future fusion power plants. We welcome the ambition to retain, and even enhance, our international collaborative relationships through this substantial package of alternative R&D. We look forward to working with our industrial partners to deliver on the UK’s fusion strategy as well as developing even stronger collaboration with our international partners.”

Image: The MAST Upgrade tokamak at the UK's Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (courtesy of CCFE)

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