Should we leave Euratom?

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July 17, 2017 by Paul Goldsmith


The European Atomic Energy Community – commonly known as Euratom, was created in 1957. It established a single market for the trade in nuclear materials and technology for peaceful uses and research. Nuclear energy provides around 30% of the EU’s electricity supply and needs to be operated safely from a secure supply of nuclear fuel.

To operate properly, Euratom needs to have free movement of capital to invest in the development of nuclear power infrastructure and the free movement of experts (labour) to work at the nuclear facilities.

In addition to this, Euratom facilitates the highly regulated movement of nuclear goods, research into nuclear technology, establishes standards and regulations for the safe and secure handling and use of nuclear materials and regulates the supply of isotopes used in nuclear medicine.

When the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 was published, the explanatory notes contained the UK’s intention to leave Euratom. It didn’t give a reason for this, but the main reason is thought to be that Euratom is governed by the European Commission and sits under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). A ‘red line’ for Theresa May’s government is to remove Britain completely from the jurisdiction of the ECJ.

Furthermore, Articles 96 and 97 of the Euratom Treaty involves its members ensuring freedom of employment for nuclear specialists by abolishing all restrictions based on nationality. So remaining in Euratom would also involved the UK Government being prevented from controlling the movement of migrants.

So, with the help of the excellent Institute for Government – there are three risks of leaving Euratom:

  1. Reduced access to nuclear fuel – There are eight countries that account for 71% of the world’s uranium production, Euratom guarantees supporting supply chains between them and into the UK. The UK has no domestic sources of nuclear fuel and 21% of its energy supply came from nuclear power in 2015. The Government has committed to building Hinkley Point nuclear power station. Leaving Euratom would require these agreements to be replaced.
  2. Interruptions to medical isotope supply – The UK has no reactors capable of producing medical isotopes (e.g. for radiotherapy) and they decay readily so a continuous supply from reactors in France, Belgium and the Netherlands is vital. This is overseen by the Euratom Supply Agency. Medical isotopes are not subject to the same safeguarding provisions as other nuclear material as they are not fissile (meaning they can’t be used to create nuclear energy or weapons). The Euratom Treaty also places no restrictions on the export or medical isotopes outside the EU. This being the case, I can’t believe the EU will hold Cancer patients hostage by making a new agreement on that hostage
  3. Reduced participation in cutting-edge nuclear research – Departure from Euratom could jeapardise access to research funds and facilities, making it more difficult for scientists and engineers working in these fields to come to the UK for employment.

The recent Queen’s speech announced a Nuclear Safeguards Bill, aimed at establishing a UK nuclear safeguards regime after leaving Euratom and delegating responsibility to the Office for Nuclear Regulation – which already exists. There were very little details in the Bill so we don’t know how access to expertise and capital will be maintained to develop and operate nuclear technology and how the UK will guarantee a supply of nuclear material for energy production and medical use.

So, Euratom becomes another area of leaving the EU that is splitting the political class apart, and not just Remainers, who are looking for any opportunity to highlight risks (without, in the case of medical isotopes, pointing out the mitigation for those risks). Dominic Cummings, the Campaign Director for Vote Leave, also believes that leaving Euratom is unnecessary. In particular, he challenges the notion that the EU Referendum was about leaving the ECJ under all circumstances. If it happens to be in the UK’s interests to stay in a Treaty, Cummings says we should.

Of course, there’s no provision in Euratom for a country that was in the EU but has now left to stay in it. But there’s no provision in almost anything for that. So the chaos continues.

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