The decision by the British government to withdraw from the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) in tandem with its withdrawal from the European Union, or Brexit, is continuing to cause some concern for the future of the country’s nuclear power industry.
The position was reaffirmed by Prime Minister Theresa May in her letter triggering Article 50, on the grounds that the Euratom Treaty is “uniquely legally joined” to the Treaty.
This stance is contested by experts in nuclear and European law and there is still some hope by UK nuclear interests that the decision on Euratom can be reversed.
David Hess, press spokesperson for the World Nuclear Association, told Power Engineering International, “the nuclear industry is increasingly global in nature. Well-run nuclear operations depend on the ready international trade of fuel, components and the relatively easy movement of specialised individuals.”
“Robust arrangements to ensure that nuclear cooperation and trade continues to operate seamlessly must be in place well before the UK leaves the EU.”
“To tackle climate change, today’s technologies must be used now. Nuclear is required alongside renewables and other sources of electricity to ensure value for consumers while cutting emissions, creating jobs, boosting skills and keeping the lights on.”
Britain’s Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) has also made its views known, stating, “the best outcome would be for the UK to continue with some form of membership of Euratom, and the government should seek to pursue that in discussion with the European Commission.”
“At the very least, there should be an appropriate transitional period to ensure there is not a cliff edge that would result in leaving Euratom in March 2019 without new agreements in place.”
In its overall statement, NIA added that given the very challenging timetable, and the government’s stated intention to maintain the same standards as currently apply, it is the industry’s view that the option to retain membership of Euratom are properly explored with the European Commission as an alternative to withdrawal by March 2019.
“The industry wants the UK Government to negotiate with the European Commission to retain the benefits of membership of Euratom, possibly by association with Euratom arrangements, because of its importance to the operation of the civil nuclear industry both in the UK and across the remaining EU member states.”
“There are many aspects of leaving Euratom which need to be resolved. The nuclear industry is urging government to reassess whether it is necessary or desirable to leave Euratom in parallel to the process of withdrawal from the European Union.”
The UK’s membership of Euratom underpins four key aspects of activity that have been important for the industry for more than 40 years.
1. Euratom officials currently implement nuclear safeguards in the UK, which involves monitoring the UK’s fissile material to ensure it is in the right place and being used for its intended purpose.
2. As part of Euratom, the UK has access to a number of Nuclear Co-operation Agreements (NCAs) agreed on behalf of member states, which has helped facilitate trade between the UK and a number of nuclear markets outside the EU. These include agreements with Australia, Canada, Japan, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Ukraine, USA and Uzbekistan.
3. The UK has also benefitted from the common nuclear market created by the Euratom Treaty. The Euratom market allows for the movement of nuclear information, services, skills and goods including medical isotopes for cancer diagnosis and treatment.
4. Euratom also oversees a framework for international collaboration in nuclear R&D, including the JET fusion research reactor in Oxfordshire and the larger ITER fusion reactor in the South of France.
Outside Euratom, the UK would need to negotiate a replacement Voluntary Offer Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to remain compliant with accepted international practice for nuclear weapons states under international law.
The removal of Euratom safeguards could also invalidate any bilateral agreement the UK has entered into with third countries making trade with those countries, such as Australia, much more difficult. Previous safeguards agreements have taken many months to conclude.
Once a Voluntary Offer Safeguards Agreement is in place, the UK will need to ratify a number of NCAs with key markets. In the USA, an NCA is required under domestic law. In Australia and Canada, the presence of an NCA is deemed a policy requirement but may still be required to comply with certain international commitments. Other existing bilateral NCAs reference Euratom safeguarding regimes, so would need to be renegotiated.
If the UK fails to negotiate its own bilateral NCAs, nuclear trade would almost certainly be significantly affected and it has taken years for the UK to negotiate, agree and approve each new bilateral NCA.
The UK’s nuclear new build programme covers a broad international base including; France, China, Japan, USA, Germany, Spain and many others. The existing fleet of nuclear reactors generate 21 per cent of the UK’s electricity and to continue operating they require access to uranium fuel and fuel feed stocks, reactor components, nuclear technology and the provision of significant services from outside the UK.
For instance, Sizewell B, which is scheduled to operate until 2035, is based on a US design and relies on an international supply chain for specialised maintenance. The UK’s decommissioning programme is reliant on products, goods and services sourced from across the word. Without access to Euratom’s NCAs and common market, the nuclear new build programme, nuclear operations and the decommissioning mission could be seriously affected.
Meanwhile news emerged yesterday that the UK is set to end outsourcing of nuclear Decommissioning.
The FT reports that decommissioning Britain’s first generation of atomic reactors is likely to be brought back “in-house” by the UK nuclear clean-up agency after the collapse of a £6.2bn outsourcing contract that exposed “fundamental failures” at the organisation.
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