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Is Euratom the biggest Brexit science problem you’ve never heard of?

The UK's continued arrangements for regulation of the nuclear industry are all up for question as we head towards Brexit. Nona Buckley-Irvine has looked at the far reaching implications for British science, colleges and universities.
This article is more than 5 years old

Nona worked as a Policy Assistant at Wonkhe.

When the British public voted to leave the EU, its votes were cast on issues like immigration, the sovereignty of British laws, and protection of British industry.

However, an area set to lose out that the general public is unlikely to have considered is the future of UK nuclear energy and research. Despite a debate held in the House of Lords last week, there has been little discussion as to how the UK government will resolve its membership of Euratom and the ongoing regulation and funding of nuclear science.

What is Euratom?

Euratom was a treaty signed in 1957, at the same time as the treaty to create the European Economic Community. It governs the peaceful use of nuclear energy within the EU, via the then established European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). Footnotes to the Brexit Bill confirmed that Brexit means the UK will leave the regulator. Though Euratom is a legally separate entity to the European Union, it is governed by EU institutions.

The UK’s role in Euratom

Arguably, the UK benefits significantly from Euratom, with no single member of the Lords making an argument in favour of leaving the institution in its recent debate, beyond the fact that it is legally part of the EU.

The Culham Centre in Oxfordshire is host to the world’s largest operational magnetic confinement plasma physics experiment and receives 87.5% of its funding from the European Commission for the project, totalling an impressive €69 million. The government has guaranteed funding for the Joint European Torus (JET) up until 2018 and in the Lords, Lord Keen of Elie outlined an expectation that it would be extended to 2020, alleviating immediate funding concerns.

The Centre also plays host to a number of collaborations – it works closely with the Doctoral Training Network in fusion, which has members from the universities of York, Durham, Liverpool, and Manchester; as well as the Centre for Fusion, Space, and Astrophysics at the University of Warwick, and the Materials Department and Plasma Theory Group at the University of Oxford, among others.

JET is a smaller project that supports the work of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project, which has up to 50% of its funding guaranteed by the EU. Should the UK wish to remain a part of the project post-Brexit, it is possible that it would have to make its own single contribution as a member state.

However, there is a wider strategic question to ask about the future of Euratom that extends beyond funding and into the realms of freedom of movement, and where the UK will be able to realistically situate itself in the international nuclear community post-Brexit.

What the government is – and isn’t – saying

The government seems to be avoiding direct acknowledgement of the strategic challenge that the UK faces should it leave Euratom – in fact, it did not mention Euratom at all in its Industrial Strategy Green Paper. The Budget also makes no direct reference to Euratom and the funding shortfalls that may occur. The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund may financially bolster development in that area, but we still know very little about how that pot of cash will be divided up.

Education and training in nuclear has been bolstered by the creation of the National College for Nuclear, with a Northern and Southern hub – the Northern hub based at Lakes College, linking up with the University of Cumbria, and the Southern-based at Bridgwater and Taunton College, developing a new University centre in Taunton, as well as working with the South West Nuclear hub for research and innovation at the University of Bristol.

However, this will do little to address the short-term impact of the loss of nuclear scientists or an internationally approved regulatory system. Lord Hutton has been placed in charge of leading on the UK’s competitive and skills in the nuclear industry and developing an early sector deal, yet he was a lead critic of the decision to leave Euratom in last week’s Lords debate. Hutton spoke in favour of an amendment to the Brexit Bill, proposed by Lord Teverson and later withdrawn, arguing that the vote to leave the EU did not equate to a vote to leave Euratom.

Free movement of people is considered a key facet of Euratom. The Culham Centre itself has 350 European scientists visiting each year to conduct research, and restrictions on the mobility of scientists would be a considerable hindrance. Hutton himself argued in favour of free movement for nuclear scientists – saying:

“in the context of the Euratom treaty, that ​free movement of labour applies only to nuclear specialists working in nuclear installations. We do not need to fear, in my view, some back-door invasion of mass migration because we remain for some longer period of time a member of the Euratom treaty.”

Hutton, as chairman of the Nuclear Industry Association, and now lead on developing this ‘early sector deal’, may be best placed to pass comment on the future arrangements. The level of concern raised is a worrying indicator of how little attention the government is paying to this strategic challenge for the nuclear industry in the UK.

An option raised for retaining access to Euratom without being a full member is to become an associated country. Iceland, Norway, Albania, Israel, and Switzerland all participate through this way. However, associate countries are subject to the same conditions as member states – which would include freedom of movement for nuclear scientists – something that Theresa May could be unlikely to accept. Nor is it feasible that the EU might be open to negotiation over this matter – Switzerland was only able to join at the beginning of this year after it extended freedom of movement to include Croatian individuals.

Challenges await the government still

Perhaps the reason that the government is avoiding mentioning Euratom anywhere but in the footnotes of the Brexit Bill is because it is still uncertain of the legal case for withdrawing from the treaty, given Euratom’s status as a legally separate entity to the EU. Without giving proper notice, or holding a consultation on the implications, the government may have opened itself up to judicial review, so there may be more to come on the matter before Article 50 is finally triggered.

Meanwhile, the uncertainty surrounding the plans will likely continue to impact on confidence in the sector and student admissions for specialised courses. Should the government want to lead in nuclear science outside of Euratom, it needs to get its act together.

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