Pressure increases for UK government not to split from Euratom

18 Jul 2017 | News

With a flimsy majority and some of its own MPs in favour of staying in Euratom, the UK government is talking of an “association agreement”. But ending European Court of Justice oversight remains as the red line

The UK government appears to have softened its stance on pulling out of Euratom, following concerted lobbying from researchers and the civil nuclear industry, and calls from some of its own MPs to stay in the treaty.

The official position in a paper released last week ahead of the first full round of Brexit talks, remains that the UK will leave the nuclear oversight body and set up its own regime.

However the paper emphasises that there is a “strong, mutual interest” in ensuring the UK and the members of Euratom continue to work closely, saying, “The UK’s ambition is to maintain a close and effective relationship with the Euratom community and the rest of the world that harnesses the UK’s and Euratom community’s expertise and maximises shared interests.”

Politicians and the nuclear industry have urged ministers to stay in the treaty or to consider associate membership of Euratom.

But either alternative would breach prime minister Theresa May’s “red line” that the European Court of Justice must have no jurisdiction once the UK leaves the EU.

While the Brexit Secretary David Davis said in a BBC interview last Thursday that an “association agreement” may be possible, he was also clear the UK would not sign up to any mechanism which gave the ECJ oversight.

Still, Davis’ words have been seen as a chink of light. “I think everybody is happy that the government is considering some kind of membership of Euratom. It is the right thing to do for UK science,” said physicist Steven Cowley, a professor at Oxford University and former director of the Culham research centre, the home of the Joint European Torus, which depends on funding from Euratom.

“We’ve made a little bit of progress,” said Juan Matthews, a visiting professor in the Dalton Nuclear Institute at Manchester University, who lives in Abingdon, just 5 km from Culham.

The UK government announced in March it would leave Euratom, which oversees the peaceful use of nuclear power and co-ordinates nuclear research across the EU, sparking protests that this would hobble research and jeopardise the supply of crucial radioactive materials used to diagnose and treat cancer. Withdrawal would also endanger British participation in the world’s largest fusion experiment, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in southern France.

The pressure from scientists has met with some success, Matthews said. But, he added, it is still not enough. He remains worried about what happens after 2018, when EU project funding is set to expire. JET receives around €69 million per year of funding, 87.5 per cent of which comes from Brussels and 12.5 per cent from the UK.

“We’ve had a statement from the government to say it will continue supporting JET. But there’s no point in doing that unless we remain plugged into international research projects. The UK does not have a separate membership of ITER - this runs through Euratom. We could buy our way in, and buy our way into [the EU] FP9 [research programme], but nobody is talking about these things,” said Matthews.

Associate member route

A reassuring thought for the director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, Ian Chapman is that, “Both sides in the talks want a continued agreement on nuclear.”

Chapman, who is also chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, does not feel that associate membership, of the kind held by Switzerland or Ukraine, would be a huge downgrade.

The UK would retain the main benefits of Euratom, he said. “Switzerland for example is on the same footing with full members; it has equal voting rights. I’d also still have a reasonable degree of confidence that the UK could lead JET as an associate,” he said.

But the fact remains that the Swiss model would require the UK to be subject to the jurisdiction of the ECJ. There could be some slight wriggle room, in that there do not appear to have been any ECJ cases involving the UK and Euratom. There is also talk that May is under pressure from some members of her own cabinet to take a pragmatic step back from her absolutist stance.  

Leaving Euratom will be an expensive exercise, scientists warn. The UK will have to set up a new national regulatory system and re-negotiate contracts to ensure supply of nuclear fuel, ores and fissile materials without the kind of bargaining power it has under Euratom, argues Simone Tagliapietra, an energy expert at Bruegel, a think tank in Brussels.

The UK would also lose the benefits of Euratom’s cost-sharing arrangement. JET, for instance, has produced some 3,000 cubic meters of radioactive waste, which will cost about €336 million to decommission.

Need for frictionless borders

Leaving Euratom also risks disrupting time-sensitive supply chains which transit radioisotopes used in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Around 500,000 scans are performed in the UK every year using imported radioisotopes.

The UK does not have any reactors capable of producing these isotopes and because they decay rapidly – often within a matter of hours or days – hospitals in the UK must rely on a continuous supply from reactors in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

“Most MPs don’t know that delaying isotope imports, even by a few hours, is a big problem,” said Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West, home of Culham, who has pushed back strongly on the government’s plan to pull out of the treaty. “We need zero delays at the border; no paperwork whatsoever. If we don’t get this, the cost of cancer treatment will inevitably go up.”

The government has dismissed these claims as “scaremongering”. First Secretary of State Damian Green told MPs recently that, “After leaving Euratom, our ability to access medical isotopes produced in Europe will not be affected.”

‘Rash red line’ on ECJ

Moran says a Euratom association deal feels like the most politically achievable outcome, “if not the most logical”.

While the government has made it clear that one of the key reasons for leaving Euratom was that it gave the ECJ jurisdiction over the UK, Moran said this is “a rash red line”.

She is concerned that a Brexit limbo will drive a brain drain of highly mobile nuclear scientists.

However, there is no noticeable effect yet, according to Chapman. “There’s a high level of anxiety among my staff but people aren’t leaving in their droves,” he said.

Uncertain transition length

The UK government said it wants a “smooth transition” to a new regime of nuclear cooperation and safeguards. There are no details about the schedule, however.

Creating a new domestic oversight regime “should be straightforward,” said Matthews. “Although making an unnecessary change is always a risk.”

In May the Commons Energy Committee, which has been investigating the impact of Brexit on energy policy, urged the UK to delay leaving Euratom. Power supplies could be threatened if a new regulator was not ready, it said.

It is likely the current arrangement will remain in place for months or years after the UK officially leaves in March 2019, to give businesses stability.

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