When British voters were asked in the EU referendum whether the UK should stay or leave, most didn’t know that they’d be voting on the future of the nuclear industry as well.
But last year, as part of the Brexit process, the government made clear its intention to leave the European atomic energy community or Euratom — a pan-European organisation that regulates and co-ordinates the peaceful use of nuclear energy, including funding, infrastructure and research.
The organisation oversees waste disposal and the safe transport of nuclear materials and co-ordinates the mobility of workers in the industry, among other responsibilities.
In the UK, Euratom’s role is vast — it oversees, for example, plutonium stockpiles in Sellafield as well as imports of radiotherapy treatments for cancer.
Business secretary Greg Clark announced yesterday (January 11) that the government will seek a “close and effective association with Euratom” after it leaves the organisation as part of leaving the EU.
In a written statement, he said that the government would aim for continuity of Euratom arrangements; aim to maintain the UK’s leading role in nuclear research; ensure that the UK has the necessary skilled nuclear workforce; and ensure that the nuclear industry in the UK would have the necessary measures in place to continue operating once the country leaves the EU in 2019.
Clark said that there would be a “time-limited implementation period where we continue to have access to one another’s markets on current terms and take part in existing security measures”, which he added would include Euratom as well.
But experts have expressed concern over the complexities involved in achieving an arrangement that works as well for the UK’s nuclear industry as Euratom has for the last 60 years since the regulator’s inception in 1957.
The UK’s industry, after all, is inextricably linked with EU member countries — EDF, the French state-owned energy firm owns all eight of the UK’s nuclear plants and is also involved in the building of the new plant at Hinkley Point.
And a fifth of the 700 staff employed at a major nuclear fusion project in Oxfordshire — itself funded by the EU — are from other European countries.
A Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) report warned that exiting Euratom — dubbed ‘Brexatom’ — would require a new inspection regime to replace Euratom inspectors. It warned of a ‘cliff edge scenario’ that would cause “major disruption to business across the whole nuclear fuel cycle”.
The NIA has also said that there would need to be new agreements signed with major nuclear nations outside the EU such as Japan, the US and Australia — a process that takes time and would need a safeguarding and inspection system already in place.
At a time when the NHS is facing its worst crisis in history, exiting Euratom could also have a knock-on effect on cancer patients. A House of Lords committee in November was told how radioactive isotopes used in cancer treatments and scans — 80 per cent of which are imported from EU countries — could be at risk once the UK leaves Euratom, as imports could be disrupted.
Leaving Euratom is considered by many as unnecessary in the Brexit process — after all, membership of Euratom is not dependent on being a member of the EU.
But because Euratom’s rules are governed by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) — and given prime minister Theresa May’s hard-line Brexit stance against the ECJ — the government has insisted on leaving the pan-European nuclear regulator.
The NIA has welcomed the business secretary’s admission yesterday that the process of leaving Euratom is complex, and that transitional arrangements would be necessary.
But, NIA chief executive Tom Greatrex warned, “Even with a suitable transition, there remains much work for the Government to do to prevent the significant disruption that industry is concerned about.”
Unite officer Peter McIntosh echoed this sentiment, noting that “membership of Euratom is a red line for Unite”.
“Unite has serious concerns about any divergence by the UK from the membership of Euratom, which has worked so successfully for this country since its inception in 1957,” he said.
“Business Secretary Greg Clark’s aspiration of ‘close association’ does not cut the mustard.
“Our membership benefits UK trade by having access to the EU, the world’s largest market for nuclear materials and technology. It ensures that UK nuclear industry personnel can work in Europe and vice versa,” he added.
“It also guarantees the safeguarding of nuclear materials and that the UK meets its international obligations. It allows the UK to participate in important EU research and development projects.”