Brexit creates a huge impediment to Britain’s nuclear industry
The nuclear fallout from Brexit When Britons voted to leave the EU few realised the implications for its nuclear industry. Financial Times, 2 Mar 17 by: Andrew Ward and Alex Barker Perched on a remote stretch of coastline in north-west England is Europe’s most dangerous building. Inside the innocuous-sounding Product Finishing and Storage Facility at the Sellafield nuclear plant is enough plutonium for about 20,000 nuclear bombs.
It is the world’s largest stockpile of civilian plutonium — one of the most toxic substances on the planet — accumulated from decades of reprocessing nuclear fuel from power stations not only in the UK but also Germany, France, Sweden and other countries. When Britain voted to leave the EU last June few voters contemplated what the decision would mean for this deadly stash of radioactive material. Yet, as officials in Whitehall and Brussels prepare to negotiate Brexit, regulation of nuclear energy is emerging as one of the most difficult and pressing issues to resolve. One senior negotiator simply called it “a nightmare”.
Britain’s plutonium stockpile is overseen by inspectors from Euratom, the pan-European body that regulates the use of nuclear energy. The organisation has a permanent presence at Sellafield and owns the cameras, seals and testing laboratory used to monitor Europe’s largest nuclear facility. Brexit threatens to upend this decades-old arrangement because the UK’s departure from the EU will require withdrawal from Euratom, a separate legal entity but one governed by EU institutions. At stake is not just the safeguarding of Sellafield but also critical pillars of UK energy security, scientific research and even medicine.
All trading and transportation of nuclear materials by EU countries, from fuel for reactors to isotopes used in cancer treatments, is governed by Euratom. The UK now faces a scramble to assemble a new regulatory regime to uphold safety standards, while negotiating dozens of international agreements needed to maintain access to nuclear technology. Rupert Cowen, a nuclear specialist at Prospect Law, a London law firm, told a parliamentary hearing this week that the UK was “sleepwalking” to disaster. “If we do not get this right, business stops,” he said. “If we cannot arrive at safeguards and other principles which allow compliance [with international standards] no nuclear trade will be able to continue.” The potential consequences of failure — from the shutdown of nuclear power stations to the loss of radiotherapy for cancer patients — seem implausible, but coming up with a fix will not be easy. British ministers must renegotiate a relationship with Euratom where no template for close co-operation with outsiders exists. They must pass legislation to set up a new safeguarding system, then find, hire and train the personnel needed to do the job in an industry known for its chronic skills shortage. And Britain must strike up to 20 deals to re-establish the basis on which it engages with other countries, such as the US and Japan, outside of Euratom.
“There is a plethora of nuclear agreements that would have to be struck . . . before we could begin to move not only materials but also intellectual property, services, anything in the nuclear sector,” Dame Sue Ion told MPs. She is chair of the Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board, which advises the UK government. “We would be crippled without [these deals] in place,” she added. All this potentially must be done by 2019, when the UK is due to leave the EU. There is a safety valve — remaining part of Euratom for a transition period — but the EU will demand that European courts oversee the arrangement, which crosses one of the red lines in the UK’s negotiating strategy. Little wonder industry is rattled………
Today, Euratom’s 160-strong nuclear inspectorate spend about a quarter of their time focused on British facilities.
Critical to replacing the Euratom regime will be a bilateral deal with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which oversees global nuclear safety and security. Euratom reports into the IAEA on behalf of its members and the UK would need to replicate this relationship. One option would be for IAEA inspectors to replace those of Euratom in the UK, although industry leaders questioned whether the global body would want its resources diverted from its non-proliferation monitoring in places such as Iran.
Yukiya Amano, the IAEA director-general, told the Financial Times that a rapid deal with the UK was possible. But he added a catch. “It depends very much on the progress on the UK-Euratom, UK-EU side. UK-IAEA negotiations [do not] go ahead of the UK-Euratom negotiations, we always follow,” he said. “If negotiations with UK-Euratom go fast, we can fix this issue fast.” However, if Britain sticks to an expected exit date of 2019, at best the UK may have 18 months or a year to re-secure its place in the international nuclear market. “There is a chicken and egg situation,” says one official involved in Brexit preparations. “You have to move seamlessly from one regime to another. But you can’t do that without a new safeguarding regime that [other countries] are satisfied with.” Britain has little experience of negotiating nuclear agreements. It took four years of “lengthy and difficult” negotiations in the 1990s to agree an upgrade to the Euratom-US co-operation agreement, which was due to lapse. And even then the deal could not be ratified on time by the US Senate. The wait caused a three-month hiatus when all transatlantic nuclear trade stopped dead. That is something the UK would not want to risk today. …….
Asked by MPs whether new arrangements could be put in place within two years, Dame Sue said: “I do not think it is possible.” One option to buy time would be to carry on paying Euratom to provide safeguarding services. But it is run by the European Commission, the EU’s executive, rather than as an independent agency which would have given Britain political cover. Perhaps more importantly, it relies on the European Court of Justice to give teeth to its intrusive inspection powers. Britain is determined to leave ECJ jurisdiction. But the nuclear area is where the EU will be most reluctant to split legal authority; the powers are too important, and the potential consequences and liabilities too big. “The only framework we are comfortable with is the existing framework,” says one EU official preparing for talks. “It works rather well.”………..https://www.ft.com/content/9b99159e-ff2a-11e6-96f8-3700c5664d30
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