UK nuclear power industry faces Brexit challenges

2 February 2018

The UK House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee said in a report, “Brexit: energy security, looking at implications for energy supply, consumer costs and decarbonisation”, published on 29 January that the nuclear power industry presents "particular challenges" in the context of Brexit.

In gathering evidence, the committee heard that the UK's ability to build future nuclear facilities, including Hinkley Point C, is in doubt if access to specialist EU workers is diminished.  It also said that a failure to replace the provisions of the European Atomic Energy Community, also known as Euratom Treaty, by the time the UK leaves the EU could leave the UK being unable to import nuclear materials. "Not only do nuclear power stations supply a significant amount of low-carbon electricity, but the continuity of that supply helps balance less predictable renewable sources, providing further assistance to the UK in meeting its decarbonisation objectives."  

The report concluded that the Euratom Treaty is vital to the functioning of nuclear energy generation in the UK and, "Failure to replace its provisions by the point of withdrawal could result in the UK being unable to import nuclear materials and have severe consequences for the UK's energy security."

The issue of safeguards is also a concern.Euratom provides safeguarding inspections for more than 100 UK facilities (including non-power-producing nuclear facilities). In 2014 there were about 220 inspections, involving 1000 person-days of Euratom effort, the report said. "To maintain energy security, it will be crucial to establish a domestic safeguarding regime that satisfies IAEA requirements by the time the UK leaves Euratom." It noted that the government and the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) "recognise the urgency of this".

Euratom's safeguarding standards are higher than those required by the UK's international obligations. "It will be difficult for the government to deliver on its commitment to maintain Euratom's standards at the point of withdrawal," it said, adding that the priority should be to ensure compliance with the UK's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) obligations.
It also suggested it would be challenging for the ONR to recruit and train sufficient safeguarding inspectors by the time the UK withdraws from the Euratom Treaty.

The UK will also need to establish new Nuclear Cooperation Agreements (NCAs) to maintain its nuclear supply chains. The government should prioritise developing new NCAs with those countries with which nuclear trade would otherwise be illegal, such as the USA, Canada, Japan and Australia. “Given...negotiations can only begin after the UK has satisfied the IAEA with regard to its safeguarding regime, it is essential for the Government to reach an agreement with the IAEA as soon as possible,"  the report said.

As to nuclear research, the committee recommended that the government "looks to maintain the post-Brexit viability" of the Joint European Torus (JET) at Culham, and ensures that the UK can participate in ITER despite its withdrawal from Euratom.

A form of associate membership of Euratom could be a way to maintain nuclear research and development collaboration with the EU. However, in the form currently held by non-EU Member State Switzerland, it would not address the issues raised by the UK's departure that are critical to energy security, the report noted.

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