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One year on – how to solve a problem like Euratom

Tom Greatrex | Nuclear Industry Association

3 min read Partner content

Nuclear Industry Association Chief Executive Tom Greatrex responds to a recent article by Labour peer Lord Hunt of Kings Heath on the subject of Euratom, which currently facilitates the free and frictionless trade of nuclear goods, services and people across the EU.

Just over a year ago, by dint of an explanatory note to a short Parliamentary Bill, almost by accident the government decided it was going to cease to be a member of Euratom in parallel to leaving the European Union.

While, at the time, few outside of civil nuclear and medical bodies had even heard of Euratom, and some of those then dominating decision making inside the government clearly didn’t understand its scope and the consequences of leaving.

One year on, the country is now in the process of seeking to hastily replicate everything we currently have as members of Euratom. While late March 2019 may be the leave date, it is simply not possible to have everything negotiated, ratified and enacted to replicate Euratom arrangements in that time.

Separate from the European Union Treaties, Euratom facilitates the free and frictionless trade of nuclear goods, services and people (including medical radioisotopes), safeguards nuclear material to ensure it is being used for civil purposes in line with our non-proliferation responsibilities,  co-ordinates funding for world leading nuclear fusion research (much of which takes place in Culham in Oxfordshire) and holds vital nuclear co-operation agreements between Euratom states and third countries.

As Lord Philip Hunt of Kings Heath pointed out in his recent PoliticsHome article, government policy is to “stick to the same [Euratom] standards” and the challenge to do so in such a short space of time was clearly laid out in the NIA’s ‘Exiting Euratom’ paper published back in May 2017. Giving evidence to a series of select committees over recent months, I have sat alongside the independent regulator, the Office for Nuclear Regulation, where they have confirmed that meeting Euratom standards on day one is just not possible.

It will take a significant amount of time and effort to replicate Euratom arrangements and Lord Hunt’s amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill seeks to protect the industry by ensuring government, at the very least, “maintain[s] equivalent participatory relations with Euratom”.

If the government want to meet their policy objective of replication, then the mammoth effort of securing and implementing agreements with the IAEA (the UN body overseeing international safeguards), the EU, Euratom, the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia and many others, is going to take time to get done. That is why minds in Whitehall and on the Eurostar commute to Brussels need to be focussed on securing and confirming a suitable transition period to ensure normal business can continue in the meantime, and Ministers need to accept that the replication of more than 40 years of technical collaboration is not a straightforward exercise that can be unilaterally accelerated.

Viewed from afar it might seem odd to leave a Treaty which is separate from the EU because of a largely theoretical concern over ECJ competence; odder still to then seek to replicate everything we currently have as members of that Treaty with the time, effort and complexity that involves rather than seeking a form of continued membership; and oddest of all to continue to pretend it can all be achieved in an unrealistic and wholly artificial timeframe without some pragmatism and flexibility.

Last month, because of concerns expressed by Members of Parliament, the government conceded that they would publish progress reports on Euratom. The first of these hinted towards a more sensible, measured and pragmatic approach as complex new arrangements need to be implemented - it is more of that and less of the hyperbole that is now required to get the job done. 

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