Leaving Euratom: the UK’s nuclear countdown begins

14 May 2017 (Last Updated May 14th, 2017 18:30)

The UK Government’s intention to leave Euratom when it exits the EU throws up a number of acute risks for the British nuclear industry. What exactly are the dangers involved, and how can the UK best navigate life as a nuclear operator outside of the Euratom Treaty?

Leaving Euratom: the UK’s nuclear countdown begins

The triggering of Article 50 at the end of March marked the start in earnest of the UK’s Brexit negotiations, a mind-boggling raft of issues to resolve and new arrangements to make as the country works to disentangle itself from more than four decades of participation in the European project. One such tangle is the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), an institution as old as the European Economic Community itself.

The Euratom Treaty provides a single market for civil nuclear goods and services in Europe, as well as managing the Nuclear Cooperation Agreements (NCAs) of its members, overseeing non-proliferation safeguarding measures and funding nuclear research.

The explanatory notes of the UK’s five-paragraph bill authorising Brexit, published in January, make it clear that its participation in Euratom will come to an end along with its EU membership, “as the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008 sets out that the term ‘EU’ includes Euratom”.

Euratom: hard to say goodbye

That short sentence in the Brexit bill adds up to a great deal of work. The UK’s Office for Nuclear Regulation is a world-renowned safety regulator, but there are many other facets of civil nuclear oversight and trade that Euratom has supervised for decades.

To avoid potentially costly disruption to the UK’s nuclear sector, the government will need to develop a transitional framework to facilitate its transfer to a new state system of accountancy and control (SSAC) for safeguarding purposes, as well as negotiating new NCAs with Euratom and non-EU countries and working out how to preserve the country’s Euratom-funded Joint European Torus (JET) fusion research programme at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy.

“It was something of a shock to those involved that [leaving Euratom] was included there [in the Brexit bill notes],” says a Prospect union spokesperson, who asked to speak without attribution due to the upcoming election. “I think the situation has improved a bit now, with the work that Prospect has done and the work that the BEIS [Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] select committee has done in raising the issues. But I definitely got the view that there was a lack of consideration, at the time, of the consequences.”

The countdown begins

So the countdown to make alternative arrangements for the UK nuclear industry outside of Euratom’s auspices has begun. It’s a race against time that can be won, says IMechE’s head of energy and environment Dr Jenifer Baxter, as long as the government is properly prepared to drill down into the details that are causing concern.

“It’s not that we don’t have enough time, we do,” says Baxter, who authored the first part of IMechE’s analysis on Brexit and Euratom (published in February). “It’s making sure that there’s enough motivation from government to make it happen. And I think we have a perfectly capable workforce in industry, in government and in organisations like my own, who can create these new systems. We just have to make sure that we’re motivated as a nation to deliver them in time.”

Prospect’s response to the time constraints involved in leaving Euratom has been to recommend a delay in any Euratom departure until the UK has had sufficient time to make alternative arrangements. Baxter, who authored the first part of IMechE’s analysis on Brexit and Euratom (published in February), also believes that a transitional period, where the UK would essentially carry on as it is now as an intermediate safeguarding system before a UK-specific SSAC can be put in place, could help ease the time pressure.

What isn’t helping ease the pressure is the snap election, which has brought any negotiations or internal UK Government discussions on the Euratom matter to a halt, something that is especially concerning for JET, for which a decision on funding after 2018 is due this summer.

“Now with the election it’s all up in the air again,” says the Prospect spokesperson. “It won’t change the attitude so much, but the timing is quite inconvenient because the JET funding will be looked at this summer. Even once the election’s over there will be a period of disorder.”

Risks for UK nuclear

The prospect of leaving Euratom presents a number of acute risks for UK nuclear. First, the establishment of new NCAs, previously managed jointly under Euratom, will need to be a top priority. Many countries require these agreements as a foundation for any partnerships in nuclear supply chain, research activities and construction projects, and although the UK already has some independent NCAs with the likes of India and the UAE, but there will need to be a massive push to secure new agreements with major potential nuclear partners such as Japan, South Korea and the US, as well as the EU itself.

While there will be significant legwork involved in developing these new partnerships, Baxter believes the advance notice of the UK’s upcoming new status and the draw of a stable British nuclear market that already hosts many international firms should make these agreements as attractive to prospective partners as they are to the UK.

“People know that we are leaving,” she says. “And for example, the Japanese have interest in the UK, they already have investments here, the US does as well. If those countries require us to have an NCA with them to continue to do business, they’re going to need to create those NCAs with us prior to us leaving [Euratom] to allow them to continue their business activities with minimal impact.”

Safeguarding and maintaining compliance with international non-proliferation standards is another key aspect of Euratom’s current role in the UK, and it is one that could be significantly trickier for the country to replicate in a national system. “The issue with Euratom is that it’s been around for so long and safeguarding has grown up with it, and we haven’t had to operate outside that treaty,” says Baxter. “We don’t have a system in place, a safe system of accounting and control, so we need to monitor and know how much plutonium is moving around, where it is, who’s got it, where it goes, what it’s used for, how it’s disposed of.”

Baxter argues that a transitional period, where the UK would essentially continue being monitored by international organisations like Euratom and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as an intermediate safeguarding system before a UK-specific SSAC can be put in place, could help ease the burden of developing a national process within two years.

And what about the engineers, scientists and other professionals who work in the UK nuclear sector? The end of freedom of movement between the UK and continental Europe could severely hamper research efforts like JET, which hosts hundreds of scientists from across Europe to take part in experiments, not to mention the wider nuclear workforce, which also relies on an international labour pool. At the very least, as in other industries, the uncertainty over how negotiations will shake out has the potential to drive talent out of the UK.

“When the workplace is uncertain, people may start looking elsewhere. We have a risk of losing skilled people from the industry, which would be very bad. And the other thing that people worry about is we have a very international workforce in this industry, it’s the very nature of it, so issues like the rights of EU citizens to remain after Article 50 is a big concern for us as a union, because a lot of our members are European citizens or from further afield.”     

The Swiss model

Both Baxter and the Prospect spokesperson ultimately view a wholesale exit from Euratom to be unnecessary, as it would potentially be possible to re-join with an associate membership, at least for the purposes of research, as Switzerland has. The Prospect representative describes the Swiss model as “the ideal situation” if ultimately “unlikely”.

Although Euratom has become legally distinct from the EU, the fact that it is enforced by the European Court of Justice and managed by EU institutions – not to mention the government’s stated intention to withdraw – stacks the odds against continuing UK membership in any form, perhaps even on a point of principle. But Baxter argues that this opportunity should be seized, rather than potentially throwing the baby out with the bath water.

“The Swiss do it just for research and development, it isn’t for the whole of Euratom, it’s just for that particular purpose,” Baxter says. “So as that already exists, if our government has the courage, then they can look at it from a positive point of view rather than worrying about the relationship with the European Court of Justice, which oversees Euratom.”   

A positive frame of mind will be needed as the UK looks to nuclear opportunities outside of the EU. And if the government can commit to the hard work of developing and consolidating an internationally compliant industry with the NCAs it needs, there are opportunities waiting.

New cooperation agreements with key nuclear states around the world could be highly lucrative, and if the UK leaves the Almelo Treaty with the Netherlands and Germany in favour of taking control of its own fuel enrichment, it could open up new markets to supply fuel to generators. In turn the UK could have more scope for looking further afield for contractors to service upcoming new nuclear projects while relieving itself of the burden of reviewing and commenting on new-build nuclear across the continent under Article 41 of the Euratom Treaty.

The challenge for the UK over the next two years will be to balance the myriad risks and opportunities involved in leaving Euratom, and to do so effectively will involve a significant commitment from the government to the country’s nuclear sector. Does the health of UK nuclear rank highly enough on the priority list to preserve continuity for the industry? Only time – and possibly a snap general election – will tell. But time is at a premium now, and as Baxter emphasises: “Getting moving, getting on with it, working out the detail and driving forward with a plan is really what we need to be doing.”