Rachel Reeves: The nuclear industry needs urgent clarity over its post-Brexit future
The government must seek a close association with Euratom, and consider flexibility for an extended transition period, writes Rachel Reeves
The BEIS Select Committee is undertaking a series of inquiries into the impact of leaving the European Union on specific sectors of the economy. Ahead of the Committee Stage of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill in December, we published the first of these reports, on the implications of Brexit for the civil nuclear sector. In the coming months, we will publish reports on the impact of Brexit on the automotive, aerospace, processed food and drink and pharmaceuticals sectors.
One of the most concerning aspects of the debates on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill relates to our departure from the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). During our inquiry, we heard from the main players in the civil nuclear sector, both at Westminster and in Brussels. Not one, not even ministers, advocated leaving Euratom, which the UK joined in 1973 in a separate treaty. The reality is that our departure appears to be a wholly unwanted but necessary consequence of Brexit.
The nuclear sector was very clear to us that Euratom provides two essential functions: an internationally accepted safeguards regime (which verifies use of nuclear material), and nuclear cooperation agreements with key trading partners. Without these, our nuclear sector cannot function, and the 21% of UK electricity generation provided by nuclear is under threat.
In the report, we found that “no deal” is a highly risky option. Without transitional arrangements, we risk considerable disruption to the operation of existing nuclear power stations, the construction of new nuclear power stations, nuclear decommissioning and the UK’s world-leading nuclear research.
The government has stated its aim not to reduce existing safeguards standards, set by Euratom, which has been agreed with the EU in the joint report on the phase 1 negotiations. This is the right objective, but the nuclear sector is adamant it will not be possible to set up a new UK regime that can achieve this before March 2019. The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), told us that even the less demanding standards of the International Atomic Energy Agency would be “a tall order” to meet in the time available. The government now seems to be recognising these difficulties: whilst the government is aiming to maintain Euratom safeguards standards, it has committed only to meeting broader, and less demanding, international standards by March 2019.
To ensure that the government’s aim of maintaining the UK’s existing high standards can be achieved, we recommend the UK seeks an association with Euratom which is as close as possible to current arrangements. The association should replicate the functions already conducted on the UK’s behalf by Euratom, including the delivery of safeguards, and the provision of cooperation agreements, at least until new arrangements can be established. In light of this we welcome the secretary of state’s willingness to consider the potential for Euratom to help with the establishment of a domestic UK safeguards regime. Ministers should also consider flexibility for an extended transition period if necessary, to ensure there is no disruption to nuclear trade. Certainly the government needs to provide much more detail on how the difficulties identified by the ONR, and others, will be overcome in practice. We, and our nuclear industry, need more information to convince us the government can deliver this new regime.
Ministers have given a strong indication that they will seek a close association with Euratom post-Brexit. This has been recently confirmed in the first of a series of quarterly updates, setting out how the ONR is going to be able to deliver our safeguards regime. We welcome the commitment to these updates and, as a committee, will take a close eye to the detail of to ensure they provide the confidence needed to achieve a smooth transition.
Rachel Reeves is Labour MP for Leeds West and chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee