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The UK withdrew from the Euratom (European Atomic Energy Community) at the same time it left the EU on 31 December 2020, meaning new nuclear cooperation agreements needed to be put in place to permit the future supply of nuclear materials and equipment to the UK.
The decision to leave Euratom came as a surprise to many as the body is separate from the European Union. However, Euratom is governed by the EU Commission and is under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. This, together with the fact that Euratom creates a single market in the movement of nuclear experts, meant that it crossed the negotiating red lines of Theresa May’s government.
Brexit, Euratom, and concerns for the UK nuclear industry
The key aspects of the single market created by Euratom are the free movement of capital and experts for the development of nuclear power infrastructure and the facilitation of the movement of nuclear goods in a highly regulated sector.
As well as research into nuclear technologies, Euratom is also responsible for setting standards and regulations for the safe handling and use of nuclear materials and the supply of isotopes used in nuclear medicine.
Therefore, after leaving the Euratom alongside Brexit, there were a number of concerns around the implications of the gap left in the UK nuclear industry:
- Continuing the supply of isotopes for medical use - The UK does not have a reactor capable of producing the half-life isotopes. As these decay within hours (or at most, days), a continuous supply is therefore required from reactors on the continent. Over the last decade, the Euratom Supply Agency has done a good job in overseeing this supply.
- Access to nuclear fuel - The UK has no domestic sources of nuclear fuel. As a member of Euratom, the UK did have the benefit of the co-operation agreements signed by Euratom with eight other countries (including Canada, Kazakhstan and Australia), who together account for 71% of the world’s uranium production.
- Participation in nuclear research - The UK had been a net beneficiary of the Euratom Research and Development Program and, due to the impetus for new nuclear development in Britain, was a leading member of the programme.
Has the UK addressed concerns regarding Brexit and the nuclear industry?
The Government’s response to the challenges facing the UK nuclear industry was more advanced and faster-paced following the triggering of Article 50 than almost any other sector, which highlights the significance of the risks. However, some gaps still remain.
Nuclear Safeguards Act 2018
The Nuclear Safeguards Act 2018 allows the government to regulate and implement agreements with regard to nuclear safeguarding. The Act beefs up the role of the UK nuclear regulator, the Office for Nuclear Regulation, to oversee the new regulatory responsibilities.
Nuclear Co-operation Agreement
Britain and Euratom have signed a 21 page Nuclear Co-operation Agreement (NCA), which became applicable from 1 January 2021. This NCA closely tracks the Euratom treaty and reflects the usual provisions Euratom agrees with third countries, although with more ambitious provisions with regard to co-operation on safety issues and on the transfer of nuclear technologies (albeit the issue of IP in such transfers has to be addressed on a case by case basis).
The NCA specifically covers coordination in the supply of radioisotopes, and the UK and EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement provides for air freight of isotopes if required.
The UK has put in place new bilateral nuclear cooperation agreements with Canada, the US and Australia and two safeguards agreements with the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) to address the gap in arrangements for nuclear fuel supply.
Brexit and Nuclear Research
In terms of research, following a deal made in March 2019, the UK will remain a part of the Joint European Torus (JET) project researching nuclear fusion, which is based in Culham in Oxfordshire, until at least 2024.
Additionally, and a little unexpectedly, just prior to Christmas 2020 it was announced that the UK will remain a member of Fusion4Energy’s research at the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in the South of France. This was unexpected, as the programme is under the auspices of the European Research and Development Programme which had required free movement of people from the EU as a condition of membership. This reflects the investment already made by the UK and the potential importance of fusion technology in the challenge of net zero emissions.
These are important areas of research but not the only ones. Time will tell whether the UK will lose out on the knowledge developed in other areas such as the experience of Germany in decommissioning its Konvoi fleet of nuclear reactors.
Brexit and the future of the UK nuclear industry
Efforts have been made to minimise the gaps but even the broadest and most comprehensive nuclear cooperation agreement is unlikely to replicate the benefits of a nuclear common market.
The analysis of the agreements put in place to avert the risks of leaving Euratom is still ongoing. However, the efforts of the department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, together with the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), in addressing the Brexit crisis (in addition to the COVID pandemic) has meant that much-needed attention in developing strategies for nuclear new build, nuclear funding and nuclear research has been put on hold for the time being.
This means opportunities have already been missed, with shovel ready sites for gigawatt capacity reactors being mothballed due to lack of government action.
Britain’s new-build nuclear ‘renaissance’ has been delayed further and is reliant on overseas technology and expertise. This is due to the abandonment of new-build nuclear for a generation, following the construction of Sizewell B in the early nineties and the consequent loss of home-grown development expertise.
How the UK’s new approach to immigration and travel requirements will hinder the dissemination of expertise and knowledge is also a question that cannot be wholly answered yet.
It is unlikely that the UK will strike out with a differing approach to nuclear law or regulation any time soon from that of Euratom, given that a large proportion of the Euratom treaty is based on requirements of international law and best practice which still remains applicable to the UK.
Additionally, the ONR is stretched with its new responsibilities and is unlikely to find the bandwidth for strategising a new approach in such a highly regulated and complex field.
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