Euratom gains new attention in UK parliament debate

12 July 2017

The British government and media are discussing with renewed concern the prospect of the UK's departure from the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). Current plans would see the UK leave both the European Union and Euratom by April 2019.

The peaceful use of nuclear energy within the EU is governed by the 1957 Euratom Treaty which established the Euratom Community as a separate legal entity, but which is now governed by the EU's institutions. The UK government announced the intention to leave Euratom in explanatory notes to a bill it published on 26 January authorising Brexit. The notes state the bill empowers the prime minister to leave both the EU and Euratom.

Nuclear power plants generate almost 30% of the electricity produced in the EU - from 130 reactor units in operation in 14 EU countries. 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. The Euratom framework also includes nuclear cooperation agreements with third party countries, including Canada, Japan and the USA. It facilitates UK participation in long-term research and development projects, and it also provides a framework for international nuclear safeguard compliance.

Parliament's EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee said yesterday it had launched a new inquiry into the implications of Brexit for energy security in the UK. The committee will begin taking evidence in September and will examine issues that include the implications of withdrawing from Euratom. Meanwhile, some Members of Parliament (MPs) are urging the government to rethink its position towards this treaty.

"The UK and the EU have common energy needs, and rely on common rules and an energy market to help ensure a secure energy supply. Leaving the EU exposes the UK energy system to some critical uncertainties, with potential impacts for both industry and consumers," the committee said. "This inquiry will seek to highlight the issues the government will need to consider when developing a new energy relationship with the EU to ensure secure, affordable and sustainable energy."

Among other issues, the committee will also examine: what the UK can learn from other non-EU countries' experience of trading energy with the EU; how the Single Energy Market on the island of Ireland could be maintained; and the UK's approach to funding energy infrastructure investment and energy research post-Brexit. 

'Nobody ever complained'

The prospect of the UK's departure from Euratom has attracted British media attention in recent days, as 'rebels' in Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative Party are arguing this would not be in the country's best interests.

May emerged successful but weakened from the general election on 8 June, short of the 326 MPs required for an overall majority - with only 318, down from 331 before. She then secured the support of ten MPs of the Democratic Unionist Party, but this week suspended an MP from her own party.

The BBC's political editor Laura Kuenssberg reported yesterday that there are "plenty of would-be rebels who believe they have the numbers on all sorts of issues to force the government to back down". She added: "First up could be membership of the European nuclear safety agency, Euratom. The rebels are very confident they have the numbers to get the prime minister to back down without even having to put an amendment down. One cabinet minister told me it would be a sensible move to show willing to compromise on an issue which doesn't raise much public concern, and would not raise too much suspicion of Brexit backsliding."

The Guardian newspaper said on 10 July: "Of all the many European collaborations threatened by Brexit, the UK's participation in [Euratom] might seem an odd subject for Tory [Conservative] rebels to pick for their first fight. But the government's policy on leaving this nuclear safety and research watchdog provides an unusually clear-cut example of the economic pain of taking back control - and one for which there is unusually limited political justification."

The Financial Times reported yesterday, "Since Theresa May has committed the country to severing all ties with the European Court of Justice (ECJ), it also required a separate clause announcing our intention to leave in the Article 50 legislation that triggered the start of the two-year Brexit process in March. But the cost of any short-term chaos is hard to justify given that nobody ever complained about the minor compromises imposed by Euratom on British sovereignty in the first place. Instead, it provides an embarrassing example of the unintended consequences of the prime minister's hard red line on dealing with the ECJ," it said.

'Very alarming'

In a position paper Exiting Euratom it published on 3 May, the UK's Nuclear Industry Association said the government needs to work closely with industry to bring about replacement arrangements in a timely manner. The paper sets out the priority areas for negotiations with the European Commission as the UK ceases to be a full member of the Euratom community alongside the process to leave the EU. It also sets out the steps the government needs to take "to avoid serious disruption to normal nuclear business" in the UK and across the EU.

Tom Greatrex, NIA chief executive, said today reports that there was no impact assessment undertaken by the government before deciding to trigger leaving Euratom are "very concerning".

He said: "While the industry has provided government with detailed information to help them understand the role of Euratom, it has also repeatedly been made clear to government that the industry's preferred position is retain membership of Euratom. It is important now that the government ensures there is regular and constant dialogue with the industry, so they can understand the full consequences of decisions they will take over the period ahead."

He added: "While medical isotopes are not classed as special fissile material and so not subject to safeguarding provisions, it is not accurate to say that Euratom has no impact on radioisotopes used to diagnose and treat serious conditions. We are not able to produce them in the UK, so they are imported mostly from France, Belgium and the Netherlands. As they are listed in the Euratom treaty (appendix A2) as part of the common area in nuclear goods, services and material, they are subject to the treaty. With half-lives of days, the ability to trade and move isotopes constantly is required. It is imperative that the government ensures there is no impediment to the supply of isotopes as a consequence of leaving Euratom."

Some 43% of people surveyed by YouGov for New Nuclear Watch Europe are in favour of the UK negotiating to remain a member of the Euratom Treaty, and 30% supportive of the creation of a new, nuclear regulatory group including EU and non-EU countries.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News