The UK's nuclear industry will need more than two years of Brexit negotiations to prepare for a departure from the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), experts told members of parliament last week. The country's numerous arrangements with European Union member states would each need to be replicated and this could take a decade, they said.
Each EU country decides alone whether to include nuclear power in its energy mix or not, but Euratom establishes a common market in nuclear goods, services, capital and people within the EU. It also facilitates UK participation in long-term research and development projects, and provides a framework for international nuclear safeguard compliance.
The House of Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy select committee heard evidence on 28 February from David Senior, director of assurance, policy and international, at the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), Sue Ion, chair of the Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board, Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), and Rupert Cowen, senior commercial and nuclear energy lawyer at Prospect Law. All four said that even transitional measures would be challenging to complete within the two years the government would have to negotiate its exit from the EU, after it triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty as expected this month. The inquiry is entitled 'Leaving the EU: energy and climate negotiation priorities'.
Greatrex said: "What we're collectively warning about is the potential for there to be a very hard two-year period." He added: "There are a whole range of nuclear cooperation agreements with different countries and states with various scope and some of them will need to have certain aspects of them renegotiated or redrafted. And if the intention is to give notice to leave Euratom in the same two-year period as the Article 50 process, then that gives a relatively short time to get lots of things in place."
The Euratom Treaty is "part of everyday life" in the nuclear sector, said Ion, who has chaired the Euratom Science and Technology Committee since 2010. "There is a plethora of international agreements that would have to be struck that almost mirror those that are already in place with Euratom before we could even begin to move not just materials, but intellectual property, services, anything in the nuclear sector. We would be crippled without other things that were in place," she said.
Asked by the chairman of the committee whether the UK "could do this" through its membership of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Senior said, "Nuclear is clearly an international industry and it works to international standards and to international expectations, and it's only as strong as the weakest part of that." IAEA conventions "cascade" into EU directives, he said, "but the key point about our collaboration and cooperation in Europe is that it brings together the European community and this is mirrored elsewhere in the world, with an Asian community and a North American community."
The ONR is a member of the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group Working Group (Ensreg), he noted, and "there isn't a precedent" for this to continue "should we move away from Euratom". There is, however, the Western European Nuclear Regulators Association, "which works alongside Ensreg as its technical support arm and we would continue to be able to have membership of that from a collaborative perspective in Europe", he added.
The UK has to demonstrate compliance every three years with the IAEA's Convention on Nuclear Safety, and the Joint Convention on the Safety of Spent Fuel Management and on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management. It has to do the same and with the same frequency for EU directives that mirror those conventions, Senior noted.
Ion stressed that leaving Euratom "would not mean that we were any less safe or any less compliant with any overarching agreement". The Euratom agreement is driven by the IAEA's global oversight of nuclear energy, she said. "The issue is the timing."
She said: "Much of the equipment that enable us to demonstrate compliance isn't ours, it's Euratom's. The cameras, the high cost equipment, the labs, they're not ours. The people are not ours, they're Euratom's. And so the translation of that and the activity and the equipment into IAEA space - or national space demonstrated to the IAEA will have to take place. It's about buying time to put all the right things in place to make sure we're compliant and also still open to trade."
Senior added: "As a nation, we're obliged to ensure that nuclear materials, i.e. fissile nuclear materials - uranium, plutonium, thorium - is looked after properly and is maintained within the civil nuclear program and doesn't find its way into other uses, such as weapons. In relation to the Non-Proliferation Treaty we're obliged to have arrangements in place so we can demonstrate that that material is being looked after properly.
"The second angle of safeguarding is in relation to the ability to transfer nuclear materials between countries and conduct nuclear business. This is where nuclear cooperation agreements come into place and safeguarding the material between countries. So, for instance, if material is being utilised in manufacturing nuclear fuel in the UK and as part of that process takes place as it does in Germany or the Netherlands, then there has to be safeguarding of nuclear material between those countries.
"The key point here is safeguarding, which is actually discharged on the UK's behalf through Euratom by the European Commission, which then reports into the IAEA. So, if we leave Euratom, then the UK has to set up its own arrangements for the safeguarding of nuclear material and we've been discussing very actively with officials in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy what that may or may not look like in a post-Euratom scenario."
Establishment of a state system of accountancy and control, or SSAC, is under discussion, Senior said, adding it "would be quite a challenge" even to put a "basic offering in place" in two years, he said.
Ion said it "definitely isn't possible" for the UK to negotiate nuclear cooperation agreements - "the things that enable trade, movement of materials, whether they be fissile or not" - within two years.
Cowen warned that even if the UK could "demonstrate compliance" to re-establish some 51 nuclear sector agreements with its partners abroad, "if there isn't political or commercial will on the other side, it won't happen".
Asked whether leaving Euratom has to follow the same two-year timetable for Brexit, Cowen said: "Absolutely not".
"The Euratom Treaty has an independent legal personality; it is not automatically brought to a close when you exercise Article 50 of the EC as it's drawn. There's no question that, legally, you could stay in Euratom for some time or forever, if you're prepared to continue to operate with the EU, have a member representative on a commission and abide by the European Court of Justice, which is of course probably politically impossible."
The UK may be able to agree a period of transition as it leaves Euratom that is separate to its departure from the EU, he said. "But if we don't get this right, business stops ... If we can't arrive at safeguards and other principles that allow compliance to be demonstrated, no nuclear trade will be able to continue." Asked by the committee's chairman if that meant nuclear power plants would have to shut down, Cowen said, "Ultimately, when their fuel runs out, yes."
When Euratom was conceived in 1957, he said, "it was believed there would be a shortage, so they were trying to make sure that the fuel for nuclear generation was available all over. If you leave Euratom, that, together with every other protection we've described to you, stops."
The Euratom framework also includes nuclear cooperation agreements with third party countries, including Canada, Japan and the USA. If the UK fails to replace those agreements for when it is no longer part of the EU and Euratom, Greatex said "there is potential for disruption". The country must therefore "avoid an artificially short deadline" that leaves it in a position of "potential vulnerability".
Asked if there were any advantages to leaving Euratom, Cowen said: "If you wait long enough, then there are obviously many opportunities in the globe. We could be working with Korea, Japan, China, all of those other nuclear nations, successfully and effectively, but not through Euratom. So, there are positives, but it's going to be a pretty difficult decade. It's trying to avoid the cessation in trade that we're concerned about; not about where we are in ten years."
Researched and written
by World Nuclear News