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Big challenges ahead as the PM pushes nuclear button on Euratom membership

Big challenges ahead as the PM pushes nuclear button on Euratom membership
3 min read

Radio isotopes used in medical procedures are a perishable product - and slow borders will mean cancelled operations, says Lord Teverson.

Last year’s referendum was not about Euratom. Leave and Remain were silent about this low profile, essential institution – a body that uses the EU institutions but is not part of it.

Put simply Euratom acts on behalf of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) as the ‘safeguarding’ agency for all its 28 member states, the same 28 members of the EU.  It ensures that under international non-proliferation treaties all fissile materials are controlled and accounted for. Its inspections make sure the strict protocols and safeguards are in place on behalf of all its members, including the UK.

It agrees nuclear cooperation agreements with third countries, ensuring the safe supply of nuclear materials. The most important are with supply countries: Canada, Australia, Kazakhstan, the USA and South Korea.  Post-Brexit UK will have to renegotiate some 45 nuclear international agreements.

It is responsible for major nuclear research projects, the main funder of the Joint European Torus (JET) project in Oxfordshire.  It guarantees the free movement of nuclear scientists and technicians.  It governs the movement of radioactive isotopes used in nuclear medicine for the identification and cure of cancers.

Despite Euratom being separate from the EU, Mrs May decided to trigger article 106a – the Euratom Treaty’s equivalent of article 50; thus pushing the nuclear button on a similar two year deadline.

That hasty decision leaves us with multiple problems. No domestic sources of nuclear fuel, these have to be imported. Our fleet of existing nuclear power stations relies not just on the free movement of nuclear scientists and technical staff, but on the import of their reactors’ fuel and parts. Hinkley Point, in construction, needs non-UK technology, not least its reactors. Our new industrial strategy sees the nuclear industry as a national priority, but we will need international expertise. 

In medicine we have to import our radio isotopes. These isotopes by their nature have short lives before they degrade.  These are perishable products – slow borders means cancelled operations.

This is not a Brexit style cliff-edge - resorting to WTO rules if time runs out. International law, and criminal law in the case of the USA, means that no trade in fissile and other materials can take place post-Euratom. Everything stops.

So with the nuclear clock ticking what needs to happen? Firstly a withdrawal agreement. Positively this is one area where both Commission and UK have published position papers. But there is plenty of awkward detail, not least the ‘divorce bill’ and who owns which nuclear materials. The Government’s pitch is for a relationship outside of Euratom which is near identical to being within.  That crosses an EU27 red line.

Then, our new relationship with Euratom has to be agreed. In parallel we must establish our own ‘safeguarding’ body, sufficiently resourced to be recognised by the IAEA. These are not simple transactions. Only then can we set about new agreements with our nuclear trading partners to secure nuclear fuels, parts, and expertise.

Government ministers insist there is no barrier to the import of medical isotopes. Others differ - their movement are specifically covered in the Euratom Treaty, in the same list as nuclear reactors. There is confusion. Once more, on things Brexit what ministers say is no longer trusted.

Big challenges lie ahead, all because our Government decided to exit Euratom on the basis that its rules are judged by the European Court of Justice.

It is said that ministers did not want to leave Euratom. They recognised the value of this efficient and quiet institution. It is a pity they didn’t have the moral courage of their convictions.  There is still time to change their mind.

Lord Teverson is a Liberal Democrat peer in the House of Lords

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