The pending withdrawal of the United Kingdom from Euratom (the European nuclear regulator) has caused controversy, as membership is neither related to nor dependent upon membership of the European Union. Here, The University of Manchester’s Professor Juan Matthews, Professor Francis Livens, and Professor Tim Abram explain what this move will mean for the British nuclear industry and how the government can take immediate policy steps to mitigate the disruption that such a move is likely to cause.
- Withdrawal from Euratom appears to have been decided without consulting either the scientific community or the nuclear industry
- Whilst most effects of withdrawal are manageable, the disruption to the transport of nuclear materials in and out of the UK is likely to be significant
- Research funding and nuclear industry investment need to be protected to maintain our position
When the Bill for Notification of Withdrawal from the EU was published on 26 of January, lurking in the explanatory notes was a statement that caused a flutter of indignation from the scientific community, even prompting a petition against withdrawal on Parliament’s website. Why was that? The statement simply said that withdrawal from the European Union also meant leaving the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom for short). In this blog entry, we will try to explain what the fuss was about and, with a couple of weeks to consider it, put the issues into perspective.
The move to leave Euratom was anticipated right from the start, but no dialogue with the nuclear community seems to have taken place. There is clearly no need to include leaving Euratom in the Brexit Bill – you don’t have to be a member of the EU or even the Single Market to join. Switzerland, for instance, is a member of Euratom. However, the following quote from the Prime Minister’ speech on 17 January raised wider fears in the scientific community on how research relations with the EU are going to be handled: “Not partial membership of the European Union, associate membership of the European Union, or anything that leaves us half-in, half-out. We do not seek to adopt a model already enjoyed by other countries. We do not seek to hold on to bits of membership as we leave.”
The Euratom complexities are very well described in two articles from World Nuclear News on 20 January and 8 February, so we can just focus here on discussion of the impact of leaving as it will affect the nuclear industry and the research community. There are three main areas that need to be addressed: the safeguards and movement of nuclear materials; investment in new nuclear power generation and the funding of research.
The UK’s responsibilities in respect of the safeguarding of nuclear materials flow originally from our signature on the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, first signed in 1968.The UK has been working through Euratom since 1973, but if we leave Euratom then we would continue the same activities but report into the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the United Nations.
Strictly, as a weapons state, the UK is exempt from safeguards inspections but, in common with all weapons states, the UK voluntarily subjects its civil nuclear facilities to IAEA or equivalent Euratom safeguards. At present, all UK facilities that are subject to Euratom safeguards (over 100) provide reports to the Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR), which are subsequently submitted to Euratom, who in turn submit this information to the IAEA. In the event of the UK withdrawing from Euratom, the collection of information and the process of submitting this to the ONR would not change – the only difference would be that this information would be submitted directly to the IAEA, cutting out the Euratom “middle man”.
The one area that will be subject to more impactful change is on movement of nuclear materials in and out of the UK. The issue of nuclear export controls for the UK is presently handled through Euratom. We will urgently need to negotiate separate bilateral export control arrangements, with the EU and other countries, for our substantial nuclear fuel cycle business to continue. This includes uranium enrichment by URENCO at Capenhurst in Cheshire, nuclear fuel manufacture at Springfields near Preston and spent fuel management at Sellafield in Cumbria. There will also be issues associated with our holding stocks of plutonium belonging to other Euratom members at Sellafield.
The approval of the investment in the Hinkley Point C reactor by the European Commission involved regulation from the Euratom Treaty and competition rules from the EU. Leaving the EU will make investment rules more flexible, but this must be balanced against increased difficulties for the European nuclear supply chain working in the UK and decreased mobility of qualified staff needed from the EU. The UK’s ambitious nuclear power construction programme will rely on academics, engineers, and technicians from across Europe and the rest of the world. The current focus on reducing immigration will lead to the slowing of projects. Overall, getting future investment for future nuclear power plant is likely to get more difficult.
Euratom is responsible for the nuclear part of the EU collaborative research fund, currently called Horizon 2020. Looking at research funding across all areas, and not just nuclear, researchers are uneasy about losing our links with Horizon 2020. For a fuller discussion see the Blog entry on 9 February, Brexit and Science: All risk and no benefit. Non-EU countries can participate in Horizon 2020 by making a substantial up-front contribution for association. For example, Israel in the past has contributed €530 million to the EU, but has received €780 million in competitive research funding. Non-associated countries can provide funding for specific projects on a pay-as-you-go basis, but there is no seat at the table for planning. Historically the UK has received more funding than its contribution to EU research. The EU is valued not just for the funding but for the enrichment of programmes through links with other research centres. The UK ranks poorly on R&D expenditure per unit GDP, compared to most developed countries – only 22nd in the world! Both the Government and industry fail to invest sufficiently in R&D. So, it is not surprising that researchers fear that the funding currently going into the EU research pot will not be restored after Brexit.
The issue of funding of nuclear fusion research is of particular concern. The JET (Joint European Torus) facility at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) receives £48 million/year from the Euratom research fund. The UK also is involved in the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project through Euratom. Quite a few UK scientists and engineers are involved in the construction and planning of the ITER experimental programmes. Participation of companies in construction is also related to being a member. On leaving the EU and Euratom, UK fusion research and related business are likely to collapse unless a substantial payment is made into the £17 billion project.
In the event of our withdrawal from Euratom, the Government will need to take some positive steps to secure our nuclear research and wider industry. Four ways they can do this immediately would be by ensuring that:
- the ‘lost’ European research funding is compensated;
- there is no hiatus between leaving Euratom and the establishment of new arrangements for research funding, nuclear materials safeguards and export controls;
- a simple mechanism is in place to allow movement and employment of specialist staff from Europe; and
- the arrangements are put in place early enough and over a long enough time that projects can include UK partners and business can continue with confidence.