It has been confirmed that the UK intends to leave the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) as part of the Brexit process. Following their loss in the Supreme Court last week, the government has produced a bill on triggering Article 50 to put to a commons vote. As part of the explanatory notes of this very short bill, was the revelation that Britian will be leaving both the EU and Euratom. Euratom, a separate legal entity to the EU but governed by EU institutions, has controlled nuclear power in Europe since 1957.
The move has been met with shock by the industry, with Dr Paul Dorfman, honorary senior researcher at the Energy Institute at University College London, calling it a “lose-lose situation” due to the potential for reduced competitiveness and reduced safety. There will be increased pressure on the already under-resourced Office for Nuclear Regulation to cover all of Euratom’s responsibilities including non-proliferation inspections, authorizing the sale of nuclear material and safeguarding power, fuel fabrication and waste sites. Alternatively the UK would need to negotiate with the International Atomic Energy Agency for help with this new burden. The decision will likely impact the UK’s plans for new power stations, research, skills development and dealing with the waste legacy.
The decision will also likely mean the eventual loss of the world leading Fusion experiment based in Culham, Oxfordshire, involving 350 scientists and funding from 40 countries, to another country such as Germany or France. This loss could risk perpetrating across the nuclear research space, with the isolation from Euratom making the UK far less attractive for research and innovation leading to a funding and brain drain at the very time the UK is trying to reinvigorate its nuclear leadership through it’s Industrial Strategy.
A complex set of negotiations will now have to take place as most nuclear co-operation with the UK relies on safeguards provided through Euratom. It may not be possible to agree and ratify new agreements before Britain leaves the EU in 2019. According to Vince Zabielski, a senior lawyer at law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, “current new build projects will be placed on hold while those standalone treaties are negotiated” meaning possible delays at Hinkley as well as Bradwell, Moorside and Wylfa.
The decision however is not just bad for the UK, but for nuclear as a whole. With the UK one of the last big supporters of the technology, weakening its strength in the field will give power to anti-nuclear camps across the continent.
Weinberg Next Nuclear is very concerned that the departure from Euratom could severely damage the UK’s nuclear industry, with impacts on energy security, industrial competitiveness and decarbonisation objectives. We find no reason why such drastic action needs to be taken. Article 50 deals with the two Treaties of Lisbon: the Treaty on the European Union and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. However the Euratom treaty is separate, not mentioned in either of the above treaties thus there is no reason for including Euratom in any part of Article 50 debate. As Jonathan Leech, a senior lawyer and nuclear expert at Prospect Law said, “there doesn’t seem to have been any real explanation as to why, because we are going towards the unknown at great speed. Legally we don’t have to [leave Euratom because the UK is leaving the EU],”.
Weinberg Next Nuclear thus urges the government to reconsider and avoid the highly damaging consequences this unnecessary withdrawal could have on the UK’s nuclear future.