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Analysis | Are Brexit nuclear fears justified?

Nuclear plant

News that Brexit means leaving nuclear body Euratom has caused widespread concern about the future of nuclear power in the UK, with news headlines warning of a “sensless nuclear Brexit” and labelling a Euratom withdrawal “bonkers”. But is this fear justified?

Concern peaked last week with the Institution of Mechanical Engineers publicly worrying about nuclear fuel supply shortages and project delays.

As well as working as a research body, Euratom upholds safety standards and provides a single market of goods and services for nuclear build and decomissioning across Europe – leaving could jeopardise the UK’s easy access to these resources.

News reports claimed vital nuclear power projects like Hinkley Point C and Wylfa Newydd will be delayed as a result, that our nuclear industry will be less safe, and that our stake in research and development will be damaged – mortally wounding the JET fusion project in Oxfordshire.

But is it all that bad? Will the UK’s nuclear industry slow down, become less safe, or even collapse all together? Looking beyond the headlines, a different picture emerges.

As Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) head of policy Peter Haslam points out, it’s far too early to panic yet – Article 50 hasn’t even been triggered.

And even when the inevitable happens, we still shouldn’t worry. For one thing, safety measures attributed to Euratom are enshrined in UK law.

“Some people have suggested that leaving Euratom would result in industry being less safe – that’s definitely not the case,” he says.

“The UK has a robust and well-established civil nuclear regulatory and safety regime. That’s enshrined in UK legislation, and that won’t be changed.”

Safety standards set by the International Atomic Energy Agency are applied in the UK, and will still apply after Brexit.

But would big nuclear new build projects be severely delayed if no agreement is reached to cover the UK’s access to goods and services after we leave Euratom?

Again, Haslam thinks not – the government’s much-lauded modern industrial strategy put nuclear at the heart of its plans. And with an ageing fleet of nuclear power stations commanding an important new wave of construction – Hinkley Point C, Wylfa Newydd, Moorside to name a few – it seems bizarre that the government would put up little fuss to leaving Euratom if it put all that at risk.

“I think it would be almost inconceivable that the government wouldn’t have either completed, or transitional, arrangements in place,” says Halsam.

“Because of that commitment [the modern industrial strategy] we are confident that the government will ensure that negotiations continue to get to a position where there are sufficient arrangements in place to enable us to continue operating as we do.”

So it would seem that panicking about our big infrastructure projects is premature. However, what about the big projects of the future – the JET project at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire is vitally important to UK nuclear research and our place at the global table.

The centre’s research into nuclear fusion, the process that powers the sun, directly feeds French research project ITER, which will be the first to produce net energy from fusion. So could JET’s survival be in jeopardy?

UK Atomic Energy Authority chief executive Ian Chapman fears we could be cut out of important research projects.

“It’s possible. We have to begin the negotiations and then put in place those transitional arrangements which are going to allow us to participate,” he says.

“From my point of view, I suppose, the nearest term, most important thing is that we find a way to continue the operation of JET.”

The UK has a contract to run JET until end of Dec 2018, but Chapman thinks it’s important to run it until at least 2020.

“If we genuinely couldn’t find a way to continue to operate JET then JET would close, and there would be really serious indications for ITER, because JET is the best place to prepare for ITER, and is planning to do some really important experiments in 2019 precisely in support of ITER.”

So given that JET is so important to a wider European project, will the nuclear community really turn its back on Britain?

“Pragmatically speaking, everybody understands that [JET is vital] – the UK government understands that, the European Commission understands that, and I hope that between them we will find a solution,” says Chapman.

Halsam is more positive. He believes it is difficult to envision a scenario in which JET and further research and development would go  unprotected.

“It wouldn’t be in anyone’s interest to throw these things away when they can make a very important contribution to attaining the long-term objectives,” he says.

So it seems that doomsday is not around the corner yet. But if things are not necessarily going to get worse as a result of Britain leaving Euratom. But is there any situation in which things could be better?

“I would hope that the negotiations would reach a conclusion that would ensure we’re not in a weaker position,” says Haslam.

“We’ll have to see how the negotiations go, won’t we?”

It seems that damage limitation, rather than opportunity, is the order of the day.

Readers' comments (1)

  • stephen gibson

    UK Atomic Energy Authority chief executive Ian Chapman should he held accountable for why the UK public gets such a poor commercial deal. The Spanish based procurement team award most of the contracts to Spanish and French companies.

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