Government should delay departure from Euratom after Brexit

Power supplies, nuclear trade and research could be at risk if the government does not establish alternative arrangements to membership of the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), MPs have warned. 

Euratom promotes the growth of the nuclear industry, ensures safety standards and funds research and development. A common market enabling free movement of nuclear professionals, materials, equipment and investment exists alongside it.

The UK joined Euratom along with the European Economic Community in 1973. The government has argued that membership of the EU and Eurotom are legally entwined, therefore Brexit means that it must leave both. 

However, MPs on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) select committee pointed in its latest report that legal opinion on this point was divided. Rupert Cowen, a nuclear energy specialist at law firm Prospect Law, told the committee that the government’s aim to leave Euratom was political rather than legal, caused by the requirement for members to be under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. The government has stated that the UK would no longer be subject to the court after leaving the EU. 

Representatives of the nuclear industry expressed strong concerns in evidence to the committee that new arrangements would take longer than two years to establish. Ministers have been unable to allay these fears, the report notes. 

Any gap between ceasing to be a member of Euratom and the entry into force of new arrangements could severely inhibit nuclear trade and research cooperation, MPs said. A temporary extension to membership of Euratom would allow time for a new system to be put in place, they concluded.  

The committee’s report states that leaving Euratom seems to be ‘an unfortunate, and perhaps unforeseen, consequence of the prime minister’s decision to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Safeguarding nuclear energy is a public policy area with a unique level of risk and therefore requires a robust legal regime.’

In the longer term, the UK would need to establish alternative arrangements for inspections of nuclear plants to ensure that materials are not being diverted for military use, which is a requirement for international trade and research, the report notes. 

Although the UK would still be a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which governs inspections alongside the European body, these are mostly carried out by Euratom officials. The UK’s Office for Responsibility would need extra budget to cover the resources needed to perform inspections. MPs noted that Euratom’s total safeguards budget was around €23.1 million in 2015, with around a quarter of staff time spent on inspecting UK installations. 

The committee also recommended that the government should: 

  • clarify its long-term objectives for climate change policy and publish the clean growth plan, which has been delayed since the end of 2016;
  • mirror or retain European standards on energy efficiency to avoid the UK becoming a dumping ground for inefficient products;
  • retain membership of the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) until at least 2020, a position backed by an international trading organisation last week. 

Several other select committee reports covering energy and environment issues were published in the lead-up to tomorrow’s dissolution of parliament: 

  • The Environmental Audit Committee called on the government to urgently provide certainty to the UK chemicals industry over future regulation. UK companies will have spent an estimated £250m to comply with the next registration deadline under EU chemical regulation REACH in May 2018, yet have received no guarantees over whether these registrations will be valid after the UK leaves the EU. Trade body the Chemical Business Association told the committee that one in five of its member companies are considering registering elsewhere in the EU, which could cost jobs and investment in the UK.
  • The Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs Committee has criticised the government’s weak policies on sustainable urban drainage systems (SuDS), which it claims have led to far too few schemes going ahead on new developments, and that where they have been installed the quality is poor. Planning rules should be strengthened to ensure that all new developments are required to install high-quality SuDS, with the potential for developers to opt out on cost grounds reduced. The automatic right of new developments to connect surface water discharges to conventional sewerage systems should be ended, so that developers are encouraged to come up with sustainable alternatives, the committee said. 
  • The Public Accounts Committee concluded in a report that the Treasury had undue influence on the government’s energy policy and that weaknesses in the design of the government’s competition for the first large-scale carbon capture and storage project contributed to the decision to withdraw a £1bn capital grant from the programme in 2015. 

Catherine Early is a freelance journalist.

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