Listen to this article
Perched on a remote stretch of coastline in north-west England is Europe’s most dangerous building. Inside the innocuous-sounding Product Finishing and Storage Facility at the Sellafield nuclear plant is enough plutonium for about 20,000 nuclear bombs.
It is the world’s largest stockpile of civilian plutonium — one of the most toxic substances on the planet — accumulated from decades of reprocessing nuclear fuel from power stations not only in the UK but also Germany, France, Sweden and other countries.
When Britain voted to leave the EU last June few voters contemplated what the decision would mean for this deadly stash of radioactive material. Yet, as officials in Whitehall and Brussels prepare to negotiate Brexit, regulation of nuclear energy is emerging as one of the most difficult and pressing issues to resolve. One senior negotiator simply called it “a nightmare”.
Britain’s plutonium stockpile is overseen by inspectors from Euratom, the pan-European body that regulates the use of nuclear energy. The organisation has a permanent presence at Sellafield and owns the cameras, seals and testing laboratory used to monitor Europe’s largest nuclear facility.
Brexit threatens to upend this decades-old arrangement because the UK’s departure from the EU will require withdrawal from Euratom, a separate legal entity but one governed by EU institutions. At stake is not just the safeguarding of Sellafield but also critical pillars of UK energy security, scientific research and even medicine.
Four areas in jeopardy: 1. Research
Britain plays an important role in EU nuclear research as host to the £2bn Joint European Torus (Jet) project in Oxfordshire (above), the world’s biggest fusion experiment
All trading and transportation of nuclear materials by EU countries, from fuel for reactors to isotopes used in cancer treatments, is governed by Euratom. The UK now faces a scramble to assemble a new regulatory regime to uphold safety standards, while negotiating dozens of international agreements needed to maintain access to nuclear technology.
Rupert Cowen, a nuclear specialist at Prospect Law, a London law firm, told a parliamentary hearing this week that the UK was “sleepwalking” to disaster. “If we do not get this right, business stops,” he said. “If we cannot arrive at safeguards and other principles which allow compliance [with international standards] no nuclear trade will be able to continue.”
The potential consequences of failure — from the shutdown of nuclear power stations to the loss of radiotherapy for cancer patients — seem implausible, but coming up with a fix will not be easy.
British ministers must renegotiate a relationship with Euratom where no template for close co-operation with outsiders exists. They must pass legislation to set up a new safeguarding system, then find, hire and train the personnel needed to do the job in an industry known for its chronic skills shortage. And Britain must strike up to 20 deals to re-establish the basis on which it engages with other countries, such as the US and Japan, outside of Euratom.
“There is a plethora of nuclear agreements that would have to be struck . . . before we could begin to move not only materials but also intellectual property, services, anything in the nuclear sector,” Dame Sue Ion told MPs. She is chair of the Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board, which advises the UK government. “We would be crippled without [these deals] in place,” she added.
All this potentially must be done by 2019, when the UK is due to leave the EU. There is a safety valve — remaining part of Euratom for a transition period — but the EU will demand that European courts oversee the arrangement, which crosses one of the red lines in the UK’s negotiating strategy.
Little wonder industry is rattled. The UK generates about 20 per cent of its electricity from eight nuclear plants. It is planning to expand its fleet of reactors at a time when countries such as Germany are retreating from the technology. The £18bn Hinkley Point C plant approved last September by Theresa May, prime minister, is due to be Britain’s first new nuclear power station for 30 years when it opens in 2025. Five further plants are at varying stages of planning as the UK looks to nuclear as a reliable, low-carbon replacement for dirty coal-fired power.
Four areas in jeopardy: 2. Materials
Britain’s plutonium stockpile at storage sites such as Sellafield (above), uranium enrichment activities and nuclear waste are all overseen by EU regulations which will need to be replaced with a new system
All these projects involve foreign technology from companies such as EDF of France and Hitachi of Japan and Mr Cowen said the UK’s withdrawal from Euratom would plunge them into doubt. “Those that are building new nuclear reactors want to be sure they can get their fuel, their components and their people. When you come out of Euratom, if you have not put transitional arrangements in place, we will not be able to do any of those things.”
New trading arrangements will also be essential for the existing fleet of power stations, which use imported fuel and components. Asked by MPs whether reactors might have to shut down in the absence of international agreements, Mr Cowen said: “Ultimately, when the fuel runs out, yes.”
Launched in 1957 as part of the Treaty of Rome, Euratom is an enduring political curiosity. The European project’s six founding members embarked on nuclear co-operation filled with optimism about the potential for a prestigious new technology. The UK joined in 1973 as part of its accession to the EU and soon became an important constituent, with two decades of expertise behind it since the opening of the world’s first civil nuclear plant at Calder Hall, now part of the Sellafield site. Today, Euratom’s 160-strong nuclear inspectorate spend about a quarter of their time focused on British facilities.
Critical to replacing the Euratom regime will be a bilateral deal with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which oversees global nuclear safety and security. Euratom reports into the IAEA on behalf of its members and the UK would need to replicate this relationship. One option would be for IAEA inspectors to replace those of Euratom in the UK, although industry leaders questioned whether the global body would want its resources diverted from its non-proliferation monitoring in places such as Iran.
Four areas in jeopardy: 3. Power
Nuclear energy accounts for a fifth of UK electricity generation and several new reactors such as at Hinkley Point (above) are planned but Brexit could disrupt access to fuel and technology
Yukiya Amano, the IAEA director-general, told the Financial Times that a rapid deal with the UK was possible. But he added a catch. “It depends very much on the progress on the UK-Euratom, UK-EU side. UK-IAEA negotiations [do not] go ahead of the UK-Euratom negotiations, we always follow,” he said. “If negotiations with UK-Euratom go fast, we can fix this issue fast.”
However, if Britain sticks to an expected exit date of 2019, at best the UK may have 18 months or a year to re-secure its place in the international nuclear market. “There is a chicken and egg situation,” says one official involved in Brexit preparations. “You have to move seamlessly from one regime to another. But you can’t do that without a new safeguarding regime that [other countries] are satisfied with.”
Britain has little experience of negotiating nuclear agreements. It took four years of “lengthy and difficult” negotiations in the 1990s to agree an upgrade to the Euratom-US co-operation agreement, which was due to lapse. And even then the deal could not be ratified on time by the US Senate. The wait caused a three-month hiatus when all transatlantic nuclear trade stopped dead.
That is something the UK would not want to risk today. Britain’s ageing power stations rely on supplies from the US. Yet a new co-operation deal will be required with the US — and it must be approved not only by US president Donald Trump but also Congress, creating opportunities for delay. “It’s one of those things that looks simple when you start out but when you get into the detail — and this is probably true in many other areas of Brexit — you find a lot of hidden complexity,” says Francis Livens, director of the Dalton Nuclear Institute at Manchester University. “There’s decades of entanglement to be untangled.”
Asked by MPs whether new arrangements could be put in place within two years, Dame Sue said: “I do not think it is possible.”
One option to buy time would be to carry on paying Euratom to provide safeguarding services. But it is run by the European Commission, the EU’s executive, rather than as an independent agency which would have given Britain political cover.
Perhaps more importantly, it relies on the European Court of Justice to give teeth to its intrusive inspection powers. Britain is determined to leave ECJ jurisdiction. But the nuclear area is where the EU will be most reluctant to split legal authority; the powers are too important, and the potential consequences and liabilities too big.
“The only framework we are comfortable with is the existing framework,” says one EU official preparing for talks. “It works rather well.”
A second problem is that there is no template for these arrangements. There is no equivalent of the European Economic Area — for non-EU members to take part in the single market. The only deals done with countries like Switzerland are based around research.
David Lowry, a nuclear policy consultant, says hyperbolic warnings about withdrawing from Euratom are overblown. “The UK is more important in the sector than Switzerland so it has more leverage to get a better deal.”
Four areas in jeopardy: 4. Medicine
All medical isotopes used in cancer radiotherapy and diagnostics in Britain are imported and new regulatory arrangements would be required to maintain supplies from inside and outside the EU
France, for example, has a deep interest in maintaining co-operation with the UK via its state-controlled utility, EDF, which is the sole operator of existing nuclear plants in Britain as well as developer of Hinkley Point C. EU leaders would not want to be accused of undermining UK nuclear safety or preventing cancer care.
“Our aim is not to disrupt the UK nuclear industry,” says one person involved on the EU-27 side.
Yet if Britain walks away without a formal Brexit deal — as Mrs May has threatened — they may have no choice. “There will be nothing we can do,” says another senior EU-27 diplomat who will play a key role in talks. “If they walk away, forget about nuclear medicine . . . we have no legal framework. Who is going to take the risk of sending material to a non-authorised entity?”
The consequences of failure make the negotiation both easier and harder — the absence of a deal is almost impossible to imagine, yet at the same time the nuclear sector is not an area where corners can be cut to secure a political deal.
Jesse Norman, energy minister, this week described Euratom withdrawal as a “regrettable necessity” but insisted there were “clear routes” to a new regulatory regime. “We take this issue seriously and are devoting serious resources [to it],” he added.
Some in the industry are looking for positives. Dame Sue acknowledged that Euratom can be a constraint on the UK nuclear sector because of the influence of anti-nuclear EU states such as Austria. She said the UK would in future have more freedom to work with countries such as China and South Korea that have expanding nuclear industries. But such benefits would only accrue once a new regulatory regime was in place.
“How will it be done? I don’t know. But it has to be,” says one senior nuclear sector figure working closely with government. “We have to find a way to put in place new arrangements. The consequences of failing are unthinkable.”
Letter in response to this article:
Get alerts on Brexit when a new story is published