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EURATOM was once a symbol of Europe's nuclear future. But it's true role may be to supervise the sector's decline. Photo: Euratom Inspectors inspecting URENCO, Almelo, Netherlands, 13 October 2015. Photo: IAEA Imagebank via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
EURATOM was once a symbol of Europe's nuclear future. But it's true role may be to supervise the sector's decline. Photo: Euratom Inspectors inspecting URENCO, Almelo, Netherlands, 13 October 2015. Photo: IAEA Imagebank via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
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The nuclear fallout from 'Brexatom': threat, opportunity, or plain bonkers?

Pete Roche

24th February 2017

The UK's inability to import radio-isotopes for cancer therapy is just the latest outcome of the UK's decision to leave EURATOM to hit the headlines, writes Pete Roche. It may also put a brake on the UK's plans to build new nuclear plants, and import and export nuclear fuel and wastes. The UK's exit from the treaty, as a strongly pro-nuclear state, could also mark an EU-wide anti-nuclear swing.

The political impact of Brexatom in the EU is unclear. But Britain has been one of Europe's most active supporters of nuclear power. Brexit could tip the balance of member states to an anti-nuclear majority.

UK cancer patients may no longer be able to receive radiotherapy after Brexit, according to today's Financial Times.

Or at least, to be able to import the crucial Molybdenum 99 isotope used for 80% of radiation treatments, the UK will have to negotiate new arrangements to replace EURATOM, the treaty that underpins nuclear regulation and cooperation across Europe.

The potential risk to cancer sufferers is just one small piece of the fallout from the UK's decision to leave EURATOM as part of the Brexit process to leave the European Union.

The surprise decision was announced in a footnote to the Parliamentary Bill published on 26th January to authorise Brexit. Up until that point this was a grey area with disagreements over whether Brexit meant the UK would also have to leave EURATOM.

The balance of opinion seemed to confirm that, although EURATOM is legally distinct from the European Union, the UK would have leave both once Article 50 was triggered. (I wrote about this in November 2016 in Nuclear News No. 89.)

This was confirmed at a meeting I attended at the Scottish Government last September when most of the nuclear industry representatives and regulators appeared to be resigned to leaving EURATOM.

On the other hand, the European nuclear lobby group - Foratom - thought the UK could decide to negotiate to remain a member (or agree some form of associate membership). The EU has numerous association agreements with other countries. For instance Switzerland is an associate member of EURATOM and the Ukraine has joined the EURATOM Research and Training Programme.

A blog on the Euractiv website goes even further saying that the idea that EURATOM is included in the exit clause of the Lisbon Treaties is false. [2]

The decision has wide-ranging implications for Britain's nuclear industry, research, access to fissile materials and the status of approximately 20 nuclear co-operation agreements that it has with other countries around the world.

The UK is going to have to strike new international agreements with all these countries to maintain access to nuclear power technology - crucially with the US because several of the UK's existing and planned nuclear reactors use US technology or fuel.

A new bilateral agreement will also be needed with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Nuclear co-operation agreements can take considerable time to agree and ratify. It may not be possible to complete them before Britain leaves the EU in 2019.

New reactors in jeopardy?

The concern now in the UK nuclear industry is that leaving EURATOM will complicate and delay the UK's plans to build a new generation of nuclear power stations.

"The new wave of British nuclear power stations was in jeopardy" said the Times. Withdrawal could cause "major disruption" according to the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) particularly for Horizon and Nugen, which are developing plans for reactors on Anglesey and in Cumbria because their plans involve co-operation with US nuclear companies.

Former Labour MP Tom Greatrex, now chief executive of the NIA, said: "The UK nuclear industry has made it crystal clear to the government before and since the referendum that our preferred position is to maintain membership of EURATOM." [3] Although Horizon, whose reactors would use US nuclear fuel, says it is reassured by the government's commitment to put new regulatory arrangements in place quickly. [4]

The Hinkley Point C station in Somerset could also face renewed problems. EDF has warned that Brexit could increase "the costs of essential new infrastructure developments and could delay their delivery". EDF, which also operates Britain's existing nuclear plants, has said it would prefer if the UK stayed within EURATOM and that if not it would be "essential that the UK establishes equivalent safeguards arrangements".

"However, if the UK ceases to be part of EURATOM, then it is vital the government agree transitional arrangements, to give the UK time to negotiate and complete new agreements with EU member states and third countries including the US, Japan and Canada who have nuclear co-operation agreements within the EURATOM framework."

EDF is also worried that Brexit will affect the movement of people and delay the delivery of Hinkley Point C [5]. It could also impact upon its costs. For the reactor builders, being outside the nuclear common market as well as the single market and having no freedom of movement may lead to higher prices if tariffs and customs checks are introduced or if restrictions are imposed on foreign nuclear scientists and engineers. [6]

Nuclear safeguards - the implications

Leaving EURATOM is also likely to add to the workload of the UK's nuclear regulator, the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), which is busy assessing designs for new nuclear reactors including the Chinese Hualong One design.

And as nuclear engineering consultant John Large points out, "The main burden of the UK leaving EURATOM will be the need for it to cover its nuclear non-proliferation safeguards commitment and for this it will have to either set up a separate, independent agency or bring these treaty responsibilities into the Office for Nuclear Regulation."

The Green Party's only UK MP Caroline Lucas raised the safeguards issue in Parliament last August when she asked the business and energy secretary "what steps would be needed to replace EU Atomic Energy Community safeguards inspectors with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Inspectors to implement safeguards provisions."

The reply did not address the fact that currently international inspections of UK nuclear plants and materials to ensure there is no diversion of materials to military misuse is verified by EURATOM on behalf of the IAEA. [7]

A quarter of all time spent on nuclear inspections throughout the EU is carried out in Britain, due to the scale of nuclear fuel fabrication and waste management facilities, such as Sellafield. Without EURATOM ONR will need to undertake many more inspections to meet IAEA requirements.

The Government will have to find extra cash, but it will also struggle to hire and train the necessary new staff especially when ONR is already struggling to keep up with the assessment of several new reactors designs (EPR, AP1000, ABWR and Hualong One). [8]

As proliferation expert Dr David Lowry puts it: "It is now time energy and foreign ministers and their advisors turn their attention to what they are going to do to ensure nuclear safeguards continuity in the UK post Brexit to avoid the UK becoming a nuclear rogue state." [9]

Fusion - nuclear research scientists angry

Membership of EURATOM is also a condition for Britain hosting what is currently the largest nuclear fusion experiment in the world. Based at the Culham centre in south Oxfordshire, the Joint European Torus project involves some 350 scientists exploring the potential of fusion power, backed by funding from almost 40 countries in the EUROfusion consortium.

According to Nature, scientists are shocked and angry about the EURATOM exit. Depending on whether and how the UK negotiates a way back in to the organization, the move could endanger British participation in the world's largest fusion experiment, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in southern France.

It could also curtail operations at the Joint European Torus (JET), a nuclear-fusion facility in Culham. The facility is a half-sized version of ITER which currently receives around €56 million annually from EURATOM. Steven Cowley, a theoretical physicist at the University of Oxford who until last year was director of the Culham Centre described the decision to leave EURATOM as "bonkers". [10]

According to the Trade Union representing nuclear scientists, the Culham Centre signed a €283m contract in 2014 for running the Joint European Torus facility until 2018, with similar contracts expected in the future.

This sum accounts for more than a quarter of the overall European Fusion Programme budget over the same period - a budget funded in part by the EURATOM Horizon 2020 programme. The UKAEA also brings EURATOM money directly to the region and UK industry by winning ITER (global fusion project) contracts. [11]

Wider impact in Europe

The political impact in the EU remains equally unclear. Britain has been one of Europe's most active supporters of nuclear power. Brexit could tip the balance of member states towards an anti-nuclear majority.

And what then? Just as the International Whaling Commission has become an essentially anti-whaling UN agency, might EURATOM states seek to use the treaty to block, not support, the construction of new nuclear power stations in Europe. Its main role would then be to supervise the sector's long term decline.

The complications around the UK withdrawal from EURATOM could also put a spotlight onto the EURATOM Treaty itself, whose legal status and many of its functions are out of step with the modern EU and may once again lead to calls for it to be abolished. [12]

EURATOM Mark II?

The UK secretary of state for exiting the European Union, David Davis, told parliament on 31 January 2017 that the UK will seek an alternative agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) if it fails to negotiate "some sort of relationship" with the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) during Brexit negotiations. [13]

The idea of a new pan-European nuclear group is also being floated, according to former conservative MP Tim Yeo who chairs the trade group New Nuclear Watch Europe.

The successor group is envisaged as a wider Europe-based pro-nuclear club including the 27 European Union member states as well as countries outside the bloc that are also developing new nuclear power plants. As well as the UK the group could include Turkey, Ukraine, Belarus and potentially Russia. [14]

Time for reform - or abolition

The UK nuclear establishment is going to have its work cut out to make sure that Brexatom does not add to the delays in its proposed new nuclear reactor programme already in prospect as a result of financial problems at EDF, Areva, Toshiba, Engie and Hitachi.

There will be widespread support for efforts to avoid any hiatus in the safeguarding of the huge quantity of fissile material in the UK. But as Hans-Josef Fell, president of the Energy Watch Group and a former member of the German parliament for the Greens points out the UK's exit from EURATOM should be seen as an opportunity.

It's a clear sign that it is possible for anti-nuclear countries like Austria, Ireland and Germany to unilaterally leave the Treaty - even a unique chance to dissolve Euratom. He says the core task of EURATOM is to support the nuclear industry. After Chernobyl and Fukushima ending that support is long overdue. [15]

The UK Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) recently pointed out that it sees "the EURATOM Treaty as one of the most direct ways the nuclear industry has promoted nuclear power in Europe over the past 60 years. It has often been the inside track from which pro-nuclear governments have ensured support for nuclear power within the European Commission." [16]

For instance, in 2014 the European Union's Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager had less leeway in evaluating the UK's Hinkley Point C financial support scheme than it would have done for a non-nuclear project because of the EURATOM Treaty, which is meant to support and encourage investment in nuclear projects where needed.

"This means that if member states choose to invest in nuclear energy, the EURATOM's objective to facilitate that investment becomes an objective of common interest that the Commission should take into account in its state aid assessment", she said. [17]

So the Commission approved the UK Government's plans to subsidise Hinkley Point C despite the fact that even the UK government itself expects solar and wind power to be cheaper than new nuclear power by the time Hinkley Point C is completed. [18]

Not surprising then that the NFLA sees this as "an ideal time for a major and all encompassing reform of the EURATOM Treaty to take account of the changed energy market in the EU, where renewable energy is rapidly expanding and nuclear power is in decline." [19]

 


 

Pete Roche is editor of the No2NuclearPower website which produces a free daily nuclear news service.

Sign up to receive No2NuclearPower Bulletin by e-mail here.

This article was originally published in Nuclear Monitor #838 and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author. This version includes some updates by The Ecologist.

References

  1. FT 26th January 2017 https://www.ft.com/content/fe3b50a4-e3e1-11e6-8405-9e5580d6e5fb

  2. Euractiv 16th June 2016 http://democracy.blogactiv.eu/2016/06/16/euratom-after-brexit-votes-uk-will-remain-a-community-member-for-nuclear-non-proliferation/

  3. The Times 27th Jan 2017 http://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/business/britain-quits-european-nuclear-body-pgmq9m9fc

  4. FT 26th January 2017 https://www.ft.com/content/fe3b50a4-e3e1-11e6-8405-9e5580d6e5fb

  5. Guardian 27th Jan 2017 https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/jan/27/uk-exit-eu-atomic-treaty-brexit-euratom-hinkley-point-c

  6. Antony Froggatt in The Conversation 30th Jan 2017 http://theconversation.com/brexatom-the-uk-will-now-leave-europes-nuclear-energy-authority-72136

  7. David Lowry's Blog 27th Jan 2017 http://drdavidlowry.blogspot.co.uk/2017/01/how-brexit-britain-could-become.html

  8. Antony Froggatt in The Conversation 30th Jan 2017 http://theconversation.com/brexatom-the-uk-will-now-leave-europes-nuclear-energy-authority-72136

  9. David Lowry's Blog 27th Jan 2017 http://drdavidlowry.blogspot.co.uk/2017/01/how-brexit-britain-could-become.html

  10. Nature 27th Jan 2017 http://www.nature.com/news/researchers-shocked-at-uk-s-plan-to-exit-eu-nuclear-agency-1.21388

  11. FT 5th Feb 2017 https://www.ft.com/content/d3d780bc-e7b5-11e6-893c-082c54a7f539

  12. Antony Froggatt in The Conversation 30th Jan 2017 http://theconversation.com/brexatom-the-uk-will-now-leave-europes-nuclear-energy-authority-72136

  13. Nucnet 2nd Feb 2017 http://www.nucnet.org/all-the-news/2017/02/02/uk-could-seek-alternative-agreement-to-euratom-with-iaea-after-bexit

  14. Telegraph 4th February 2017 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2017/02/04/britain-proposing-wider-europe-based-pro-nuclear-club-article/

  15. Energy Post 5th July 2016 http://energypost.eu/brexit-offers-chance-finally-put-end-euratom-treaty/

  16. NFLA Press Release 30th Jan 2017 http://www.nuclearpolicy.info/news/nfla-uk-decision-withdraw-euratom-could-halt-new-nuclear/

  17. Politico 11th January 2017 http://www.politico.eu/article/hungary-nuclear-approval-expected-thanks-to-uk-and-france-precedent/

  18. Guardian 11th August 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/11/solar-and-windcheaper-than-new-nuclear-by-the-time-hinkley-is-built

  19. NFLA Press Release 30th Jan 2017 http://www.nuclearpolicy.info/news/nfla-uk-decision-withdraw-euratom-could-halt-new-nuclear/

 

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