Cabinet resignations, a government with no majority in the Commons, a make-or break-budget for the chancellor and a fast-approaching Brexit negotiating deadline means it is easy for issues to slip out of the public consciousness. Against this backdrop, Euratom and the UK’s future nuclear safeguarding regime risk being forgotten.
As the nuclear safeguards bill – one of the “Brexit bills” announced in the Queen’s speech – makes its way through the parliamentary process, nuclear experts were called to present evidence to MPs. The message from experts is unequivocal – there is no upside to the UK leaving the Euratom treaty.
Be it Prospect, the trade union representing civil nuclear experts, EDF Energy, or the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), the sector is united in its message to the government: leaving Euratom is complicated, and the potential consequences could be disastrous for our country. Rupert Cowen, a nuclear expert at Prospect Law, claims the UK is “sleepwalking” to disaster: “If we do not get this right, business stops … no nuclear trade will be able to continue.”
This is not scaremongering. Analysis of the facts shows just how much is at risk by leaving Euratom, and how complex this process is, given the government’s unnecessary, self-imposed deadline. This government must start listening.
Euratom, among other things, provides safeguarding inspections for all civil nuclear sites in the UK. Inspectors are employed by Euratom and many are EU nationals. It takes five years to train a nuclear inspector and there is currently a limited pool of qualified inspectors from which to recruit. As Sue Ferns, deputy general secretary of Prospect, said in her evidence to the nuclear safeguards bill committee, “this is a highly skilled, very specialist area, which is why there is such a premium on this source of labour” and this is why we must question the wisdom of the government’s actions so far.
The government plans for the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) to take over the role that Euratom currently carries out, but the ONR and the NIA have made clear that new arrangements will not be in place by the time we are due to leave Euratom in March 2019. Asked by MPs whether new arrangements could be put in place within the timeframe, Dame Sue Ion, chair of the Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board, said: “I do not think it is possible.”
Should the UK fail to have its safeguarding regime in place by March 2019, nuclear trade would halt, as well as cross-nation technology sharing that some of our nuclear power stations rely on to function. Again, this is not an exaggeration of the problem, or political point-scoring. Put simply, if we don’t have our safeguarding regime in place, our nuclear industry will face major, potentially dangerous, disruptions.
Despite protests from government ministers, leaving Euratom at the same time as leaving the European Union is not necessary. Euratom is a separate treaty to our EU membership and it is time the government treated it as such, rather than claiming the two are inextricably intertwined.
Our civil nuclear industry and Euratom, like so much of the Brexit negotiations, is incredibly complex and it is absolutely vital that we get these negotiations right. Remaining part of Euratom for a transition period may act as a safety net, giving the industry the time it needs to prepare to leave Euratom, but the EU will demand that European courts oversee the arrangements, which of course crosses one of Theresa May’s negotiating red lines.
Releasing the impact assessment that the government has carried out on our nuclear industry would be a step in the right direction, rather than rushing through policy with little scrutiny and condemning Brexit opponents as unpatriotic mutineers.
It is time for this government to release itself from unnecessary self-imposed straightjackets, stop focussing on narrow party disputes and start listening and put the interests and the safety of the nation first.