The UK’s vote to leave the European Union has put the country’s nuclear industry at risk because its trade in radioactive materials will be forbidden under international law.
In the worst case scenario, legal experts say, the lights could go out in the UK, but they think the more probable outcome is simply that the government will find itself with an expensive industrial problem and an embarrassing diplomatic mess.
The unintended consequence for the British nuclear industry of last year’s referendum vote to leave the EU is that the decision will also take the UK out of the Euratom treaty that protects the EU’s nuclear industry against radioactive material falling into the hands of rogue states or terrorist groups.
Nuclear power stations already provide about one-fifth of the UK’s electricity, and the government has ambitious plans to build at least 10 more reactors as part of its strategy to cut carbon emissions.
It has withdrawn subsidies from onshore wind and solar power, and underwritten new nuclear stations instead.
However, the industry relies on foreign companies − based both in the EU and outside − that provide parts, fuel and raw materials. When the UK leaves Euratom, this trade will be contrary to international law.
Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the Nuclear Industries Association, which represents 260 companies, says: “There is scope for real and considerable disruption.”
The Euratom safeguards are applied by the European Commission to provide confidence that nuclear materials in the EU are not diverted from their declared end use, which is producing electricity from uranium and plutonium, and dealing with the waste that results.
This enables countries inside the EU to trade with other member states in construction and providing parts and staff for nuclear power stations. It also allows trade in such dangerous materials as plutonium, uranium and spent fuel, provided it is both safe and for peaceful purposes.
There is no precedent for a member state leaving the EU. But, in theory, when the UK does so − and therefore leaves Euratom − possibly as soon as two years from now, this trade must cease, otherwise member states will be breaking the terms of the treaty.
This would effectively paralyse not only the UK industry, which relies on international trade to survive, but also many of its trading partners in the EU, and also Japan, China and the US, all of which the UK has nuclear deals with that would need a new safeguard regime in place in order to continue.
Outside the EU, nuclear traffic is policed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has a safeguard regime similar to the EU’s and regulates international trade outside the EU.
“ The government has failed to consider
the potentially severe ramifications of its
Brexit objectives for the nuclear industry ”
Euratom and the IAEA work closely together, but the two organisations have different methods and different personnel, so switching from one safeguard regime to the other cannot be done overnight.
Since the UK’s nuclear industry is owned by the French energy company EDF, which in turn has the French government as its majority shareholder, this could lead to serious problems in nuclear supplies.
The UK government accepts that it must leave Euratom if it leaves the EU, but says “it will seek alternative arrangements”.
As yet, it has given no clue how this will be achieved, but since the UK is in the middle of a general election campaign it is unlikely there will be any way out of the problem soon.
A UK government spokeswoman said: “Leaving Euratom is a result of the decision to leave the EU as they are uniquely legally joined.”
She added: “The UK supports Euratom and will want to see continuity of co-operation and standards. We remain absolutely committed to the highest standards of nuclear safety, safeguards and support for the industry.”
Trade and research
However, the UK’s House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee report − issued just as parliament was dissolved for the election – says that any gap between the UK leaving Euratom and entering into secure alternative deals would “severely inhibit nuclear trade and research and threaten power supplies”.
Iain Wright, the committee’s chair, said: “The impact of Brexit on Euratom has not been thought through. The government has failed to consider the potentially severe ramifications of its Brexit objectives for the nuclear industry,
“Ministers must act as urgently as possible. The repercussions of failing to do so are huge. The continued operations of the UK nuclear industry are at risk.”
Rupert Cowen, a senior nuclear energy lawyer at Prospect Law, a firm that specialises in energy legislation, has told MPs that leaving the Euratom treaty, as the government has promised, could see trade in nuclear fuel grind to a halt.
He said: “Unlike other arrangements, if we don’t get this right, business stops. There will be no trade. If we can’t arrive at safeguards and other principles that allow compliance [with international nuclear standards] to be demonstrated, no nuclear trade will be able to continue.”
Dame Sue Ion, chair of the Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board, which was established by the UK government in 2013, said a whole lot of new international agreements would have to be in place before anything in the nuclear sector could be transferred between countries.
“We would be crippled without other agreements in place,” she said.
Originally published on May 17th by the Climate News Network, written by Paul Brown