The Nuclear Consequences of Brexit

19 Apr, 2018    ·   5459

Arushi Vig argues that the negative fallout will be disproportionately balanced towards the UK


After the 2016 Brexit verdict, one area of several areas of concern is nuclear energy. The British civil nuclear programme was meshed with Euratom since the UK's inclusion in the EU in 1973. One consequence of Brexit is Prime Minister Theresa May’s seeming determination to part ways with all EU institutions including Euratom. This article evaluates the consequences both for the UK as well as Euratom.

Euratom was set up by EU member states to create a specialist market for nuclear power in Europe. It also oversees the nuclear industry of its members; ensuring free, safe and quick transportation of nuclear materials and manpower, synergising research, and synchronising safety standards, among others. Consequently ,one of the first implications of Brexit would be the costs, which could go up to a few billion pounds, for developing new safety norms and procedures, as it implies the creation of domain knowledge and the associated costs of duplication, including setting up a new agency. Also, a Euratom exit could initially cause delays in materials and manpower which could have a negative impact on UK’s medical industry specifically in the field of chemotherapy where nuclear energy is explicitly used.

If Brexatom were to occur, it could also cause the UK to lose its association with EU countries as well as other major powers such as the US and Japan. Since joining in 1973, any nuclear treaties with other countries (including any signed before that date) were placed under the aegis of Euratom. If the UK leaves the Euratom, all its complex nuclear treaties with the US and the rest of Europe which mesh into an international web would need to be re-ratified in national legislatures and the UK. This is a large international legislative task. If the treaties are not re-ratified by national parliaments on time, then, depending on the treaty, the UK could possibly be in breach of the NPT because of the delay caused.

Additionally, the UK does not have the same active nuclear research base it once had. Although the UK has more extensive experience of decommissioning than its European partners, this is not uniquely specialised knowledge, and most of the private companies involved are multinational. While Euratom allowed a highly skilled British workforce to benefit from a large Europe-wide ecosystem of research, the prospects of an NPT breach or of a manpower shortage would all severely affect the possibility of cooperation, including and especially research.

Despite all this, there remains a point of view that the Euratom does not remain the same viable nuclear agency it was and had been destroyed by a powerful member state, Germany. Germany's nuclear net capacity of 10.799 MWe (the second highest in the EU), and a total of 8 power plants were severely shrunk with its announcement to terminate its nuclear power plants by 2022 in the wake of the Fukushima incident. Its decision to forego the nuclear option significantly reduced the market viability of European civil nuclear research and cooperation. Aside from Germany, Europe's lack of public consultations, its old treaty systems, and limited role of the European Parliament in overseeing Euratom had made it a public relations disaster. Also, the UK possess the second highest number of power plants in the EU and a net capacity worth 8.918 MWe. Brexit therefore would further weaken Euratom, already reeling from the German decision and compounded by the fact that the UK is a powerful pro-nuclear voice in the organisation.

However for Britain, the dilemma would still be who would inspect British civil nuclear sites that generate power, fabricate fuel and manage waste. Euratom and the IAEA oversee them now, although the IAEA has scaled back because of overlap. Additionally, Euratom includes other powerful members such as France which has a total of 58 reactors and a net capacity of 63.130 MWe and Sweden with 10 reactors and a net capacity worth 9.651 MWe. Thus the benefits reaped by the UK from Euratom are much more than the other way round.

Internally, the British government remains divided regarding its exit from Euratom. MPs in the upper house of parliament maintained the stance that the country should not leave Euratom till a replacement deal is found, voting 194 out of 265. However the PM has explicitly stated that she wants to cut ties with all organisations of the EU, specifically those that come under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

There were talks of an associate membership with Euratom once the UK leaves the EU but speculations still surround the case, such as the future of the UK's research funding, its continued inclusion in the European Economic Area (EEA), and whether the UK would still invest in European projects such as the ITER fusion reactor project in France. These impending queries and the complexities associated with it have made an associate membership almost impossible.

Both sides would be adversely affected by Brexatom. However, the pain will be disproportionately felt by the UK, and this is what the government must remember as it negotiates the nuclear aspects of Brexit.


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