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Euratom: What could staying in the treaty look like?

Dr Jenifer Baxter Head of Energy and Environment

There are two key Euratom options
There are two key Euratom options

Can the UK stay in Euratom despite Brexit? Our energy expert Jen Baxter assesses the options.

Recent coverage of the issues surrounding leaving the Euratom Treaty has focused on ‘to stay or not to stay’; but what does staying look like?  

The Euratom Treaty is the European Atomic Energy Community and a separate treaty governed by European institutions covering four main areas of civil nuclear activity in Europe.

The Treaty:

  • provides a safeguards system that ensures European member states meet with the global Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).  This means that all management and movement of nuclear materials are carefully monitored, recorded and inspected.
  • enables a single market for nuclear new build, ongoing generation, decommissioning and research and development.
  • manages and maintains the Nuclear Co-operation Agreements (NCAs) on behalf of Euratom members with non-European nations allowing for global civil nuclear activities to be shared.
  • provides funding for shared nuclear research across Europe, including fusion research.

When the UK Government triggered Article 50 to leave the European Union, it was stated that the UK would also leave Euratom.  Since Summer 2016 and the referendum result, the challenges of leaving Euratom for the civil nuclear sector as well as movement of medical isotopes have become apparent.

There is of course the option to stay in the Euratom Treaty that will require a change to the letter triggering Article 50 and that has its own complexities depending on how Article 50 is interpreted, but as a minimum the UK Government would have to revoke and reissue their letter of departure. This would solve the difficulties for the civil nuclear sector, but may be politically too unpalatable. 

Two Euratom options

That has left two options: The first that the UK leaves Euratom completely.  This would mean that before we can do anything else we would need to put in place a new internationally recognised Safeguards system that monitors, records, inspects and regulates nuclear material to ensure we comply with the global treaty on non-proliferation.

In the Queen’s Speech, the Government said it planned a Nuclear Safeguards Bill to give the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) the powers to undertake the development of this new system.  

The ONR do already undertake some inspection and safeguards activities, but as a quarter of Euratom inspections happen in the UK this is likely to be a significant increase in activities.  

Before any inspections can be conducted the new system would have to be developed, approved by Government and the International Atomic Energy Agency.  

This is likely to take longer than the time given to our exit date of March 2019.  By no means is this an impossible situation, but one that requires action, commitment and collaboration across Government, industry and national and international regulators.

A safe system of accountancy and control aka Safeguards is the key to movement in energy policy for civil nuclear power and movement of medical isotopes.  

This must happen or be clearly visualised in detail before any nuclear co-operation agreements can be negotiated and in-place before they are agreed.  This is because NCAs often rely on a Safeguards system for agreement to be reached.

Associate Euratom membership

The second option being proposed is an ‘Associate’ Membership of Euratom.  I have heard this in a few different configurations including, keeping all the benefits of Euratom, accessing Euratom and the most likely scenario to access research facilities, findings, funding and people for which there is precedent.  

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers report, Leaving Euratom: Part 2 – A Framework for the Future, recommended that the UK remains as an Associate Member of Euratom for the purposes of research.  

Hopefully through negotiation something similar to the Swiss model could be achieved, including access to facilities, funding, findings and people including fusion at ITER.  

As each Association with Euratom is bespoke and negotiated there is no reason to assume that we couldn’t develop a fixed term, renewable relationship based on the needs and mutual benefits of the EU27 and the UK.

However, in advance of this negotiation a new Safeguards system would be required as the members of Euratom and existing Associates would need to be certain that the UK has a safe system of accountancy and control.  

It is not clear if the UK could access Euratom Safeguards as part of an Association or if a new system would need to be in place, this would be a question for legal debates and discussions.

What is clear is that while the UK waits for a better picture of the new nuclear Safeguards, NCAs, research and development activities and access to global markets including the EU27 then motivation, innovation, investments and engineering activities are stifled.  

It is time to make decisions and act to support energy and medical developments and secure the workforce across the UK associated with this.

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