Earlier this year, Professor Juan Matthews contributed to a policy blog on the consequences of Britain’s planned withdrawal from Euratom as part of the Brexit process. Here, he gives us an update on the progress (or lack of it) around the issues of Euratom withdrawal and scientific collaboration with the European Union.
- In the months since our blog on the consequences of Euratom withdrawal, understanding of the potential impacts of our exit from this agreement for Britain’s health, trade and research sectors has grown
- A government-hosted forum event earlier this month offered general reassurance, but very little detail, on how we will address these challenges
- The recent government paper on science collaboration has the right intentions, but leaves significant questions of trade and cross-border transport unanswered
There was a flurry of indignation in the UK nuclear industry and research community when, in February this year, the Government decided to include exit from Euratom (the European Atomic Energy Community) as part of the Withdrawal from the European Union (Article 50) Bill. The issue grumbled on until it came to a head again in July. There was no proper resolution at start of the Summer recess but there is now some progress to report, so here is an update of the previous blog post.
Euratom controls and protects the use of nuclear materials for nuclear power. Outside Euratom the UK will have to introduce its own mechanism – not rocket science but without it an industry worth over £1 billion a year grinds to a halt. On 13 July the Government issued a position paper on “Nuclear Materials and Safeguards”. This concisely explained the problems and what had to be done, but did not provide any reassurance on how it would be done and the industry remains queasy that, with so many other actions on Brexit, there could be a hiatus.
Consequences of Euratom withdrawal: Health, trade, and research
On 10 July the Royal College of Radiologists issued a statement on the “Potential impact of leaving the EU”, which was quickly taken up by the media. Nobody wants cancer treatment to be compromised by Brexit. The problem here is one that is shared with the nuclear industry and, for that matter, the automotive and aerospace industries. Materials produced in one country are used to make components in another and then used or incorporated into the final product in a third.
Trade barriers increase the costs but also vitally slow down the movement of goods. The Euratom Treaty ensures the free passage of nuclear materials and radio-isotopes. Since Mrs Thatcher closed our research reactors in 1990 we no longer produce radio-isotopes in the UK, but we have a major radio-pharmaceutical industry that uses them. Many of the diagnostic and clinical isotopes have short half-lives and need to be moved to patients quickly.
Concern also remained on leaving the EU Research and Development (R&D) programme (Horizon 2020, the nuclear part of which is managed by Euratom) and the free movement of researchers and their families. Horizon 2020 is not just about the research funding, it is also the close link with other research groups. The impact will be felt particularly strongly in the area of nuclear fusion. This is currently funded through Euratom programmes, which support over 500 staff at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) and the Joint European Torus (JET), plus many UK technology businesses.
On 27 June the Government promised to continue to support JET until 2020, but it was not clear if continued interactions with the European programmes will be possible. Without this connection, the work at CCFE will be considerably diminished. At the moment, the major initiative on fusion is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) being built in France. The UK’s involvement is through Euratom. Buying back into ITER would be expensive but without membership, the UK staff and businesses involved would be excluded and an estimated £1 billon to UK companies lost.
Talking Shop: The Euratom Exit Industry Forum
On 4 September the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) held a half-day meeting titled “Euratom Exit Industry Forum” which could be the basis for creating the industry working group discussed in a debate in Parliament on 12 July. A wide range of stakeholders were invited, covering the nuclear industry, research bodies, industry and professional associations and unions.
A series of presentations were made by civil servants leading the work in BEIS and DExEU (Department of Exiting the EU, it sounds like something out of Yes, Minister) and the event was rounded off by a speech by the Minister of State for Energy and Industry, Richard Harrington.
To be honest, the civil servants’ presentations were painfully generic statements of intentions, with no real information because of the confidentiality of the negotiations. The Minister gave a rather rousing speech with assurances that the resolution of the Euratom activities were high priority and everyone was working hard to ensure that the relevant issues will be resolved. However, there were some important points:
- Some continued association with Euratom is not being ruled out;
- Also continued association with EU research programmes is being discussed and there is the realisation that a solution, particularly the continuation of involvement with the EU fusion program and ITER will not be cheap;
- There is real progress on resolving the safeguards and nuclear materials control.
At the Forum, David Pascoe the Office of Nuclear Regulation (ONR) Safeguards Officer, provided some further information on the work going on. The UK as a ‘weapons state’ will use a voluntary agreement to participate in the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) State Systems for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials from March 2019. The ONR has provided staff to ensure the IAEA safeguards regulation can be integrated into the UK regulation systems when it is needed. The main uncertainties are related to waiting for decisions from the various bodies involved. The ONR are making sure the right information is available when needed to expedite the decisions. Proof of concept work is underway. The ONR are making sure through recruitment that capacity and competencies are available when the new safeguards system is introduced. A number of new staff have already been appointed, but some concerns do remain on the availability of new staff with the right skills and backgrounds. New equipment will need to be purchased and/or acquired from Euratom.
Science Collaboration Paper – good intentions; light on detail
On 6 September the DExEU issued a paper “Collaboration on Science and Innovation”, which sets out the ambitions for continued UK access to the Horizon 2020 programme. Included in this are the areas covered by Euratom and the fusion programme. It is reassuring that the intention to continue with full collaboration in R&D with Europe, but it remains to be seen if this can be achieved at a cost that is acceptable.
This leaves the issue of the trade and cross-border transport of nuclear materials and radioactive isotopes. At the Forum the Government position was that this is not the domain of Euratom exit but part of the wider trade negotiations. The status of the trade negotiations looks very uncertain. This left the stakeholders at the meeting unhappy. There was also no guidance on other possible impacts on the new build and NDA programmes. Questions from the audience indicated widespread concern about staff morale and the impact on getting new staff into an industry that is supposed to be expanding.