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Splitting the Atomic Energy Industry: Brexit Doesn't Mean Leaving Euratom

CC0 / Pixabay / Atomic energy
Atomic energy - Sputnik International
Contrary to official claims, Brexit doesn’t inevitably mean leaving the European Atomic Energy Community - Euratom - the international body governing civil nuclear power in Europe – but there is little time for the UK government to rethink its decision to do so.

Euratom is a 1957 European treaty created to promote research and cooperation on nuclear power, which oversees the non-proliferation of nuclear materials and inspections of UK nuclear material, such as the stockpile of waste at Sellafield in Cumbria.

The treaty also coordinates European research into atomic power, and provides for the free movement of nuclear workers and equipment.

The government has claimed Brexit necessitates leaving Euratom, although experts have long-warned the move would be both very dangerous and entirely needless.

With the Brexit process scheduled to conclude in March 2019 at the latest, significant question marks hover over the UK's ability to duplicate the vital features of Euratom independently. It is also seen as an inescapable by-product of the UK extracting itself from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, which governs Euratom.

The European Commission wants the UK to take on all of its safeguard obligations and ownership of nuclear material and used fuel after it leaves, according to a position paper published in June.

The government similarly signaled it plans to shift safeguarding powers to meet non-proliferation standards to the Office for Nuclear Regulation when it laid out its program for the coming year in the Queen's Speech. Currently, the national regulator merely covers safety checks.

With the UK departed from Euratom, and no comparable agreements in place, the country could be precluded from making and trading nuclear fuel, selling innovations, offering services overseas and more.

With nuclear businesses unable to conduct any activities until new agreements are inked, the UK's nuclear fuel could run out, in turn meaning the country's various nuclear reactors would need to be shut off — and foreign nuclear businesses may well opt to leave as a result.

In March, Tom Greatrex, Chief Executive of the UK Nuclear Industry Association, told a House of Commons Select Committee on the impact of Brexit on the UK nuclear industry, the sector had made it "crystal clear" its preferred position was to maintain membership of Euratom as the treaty made the movement of nuclear goods, people and services much more efficient. There is "a lot to be done" to put in place measures replacing Euratom, he believed.

"The potential is for there to be a very hard period during which there are lots of other things the government has to deal with, that could leave it in a position where some of these things aren't in place," Greatrex said.

Euratom is arguably more important for the UK than most other EU countries — around 20 percent of Britain's electricity is provided by 15 nuclear reactors, built with parts from around the world, and fueled with imported uranium.

© Photo : EDF EnergyContractors on site at Hinkley Point C, May 2014.
Contractors on site at Hinkley Point C, May 2014. - Sputnik International
Contractors on site at Hinkley Point C, May 2014.

The country is also home to the world's largest stockpile of toxic plutonium. It imports radioactive isotopes for medical and other uses from Germany, France and the Netherlands, which can't be stored. The UK also hosts a European research center for nuclear fusion experiments that would be threatened if and when it exits Euratom. 

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There are two precedential alternatives to ditching Euratom outright — the UK must either become an associate partner, akin to Switzerland and Ukraine, or a third country member like Japan, the US and Canada. On the other hand, the UK could simply rescind its application to leave Euratom — or the parties to Euratom could amend the community's treaty to allow non-EU members.

Ultimately however, the UK's future relationship with Euratom is contingent on negotiations between the EU and UK — although UK leaders would arguably be wise to endeavor to maintain the country's place in the institution.

MPs are scheduled to debate Euratom July 12, a day prior to the government's Repeal Bill being introduced in parliament, which will see certain EU laws integrated into the UK's national statutes.

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