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How will Brexit affect the nuclear industry?

When Britons voted to leave the EU, few realised the implications for the country’s nuclear power industry, which employs 66,000 people.

The issue never featured in the referendum campaign on Brexit. And few outside the industry had even heard of the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), the EU’s common market and regulator for the development and trade in nuclear energy and materials.

So the government’s decision in January to leave Euratom when Brexit takes effect in March 2019, went largely unnoticed. Over the summer, however, the issue entered the news headlines with a bang.

There were stark warnings that leaving Euratom before Britain has its own nuclear safeguards regime in place, could delay plans to build a new generation of nuclear power stations. This would mean the loss of jobs and billions of pounds of investments in the nuclear industry. Energy prices would rise and the lights could even go out if there are any disruptions to the supply of nuclear fuel – nuclear power generates 20 per cent of Britain’s electricity.

“The continued operations of the UK nuclear industry are at risk,” said Iain Wright, an MP who chairs the influential cross-party Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee.

Don’t Let the Lights Go Out

The risk to jobs aside, experts warn that leaving Euratom could have other negative consequences. Among them:

  1. Cancer patients could be at risk: the Royal College of Radiologists says that leaving Euratom could restrict Britain’s access to radioactive isotopes used in scans and treatments.
  2. Funding for nuclear research in Britain could be hit because Euratom co-ordinates financing for projects in Europe. Membership has helped Britain become a key player in this field through European-funded nuclear facilities such as the Joint European Torus project in Oxfordshire.
  3. There could be a brain drain of top British nuclear scientists and technicians to countries where they will have more opportunities to work internationally.

Euratom underpins Britain’s nuclear trade with third countries such as the US Japan and Australia through co-operation agreements that give Britain access to 71 per cent of the world’s uranium production. Membership has helped Britain become a leading manufacturer of reactor fuel.

Nuclear Brexit: A Tricky Business

Leaving Euratom, however, will require the nuclear industry to create new ways of doing business, which is far from straightforward. It will involve negotiating new stand-alone co-operation treaties with countries to ensure nuclear fuel supplies, technology and expertise. This could take years, experts say.

Moreover, these agreements cannot be concluded before Britain establishes its own nuclear “safeguards” regime to take over responsibilities that currently lie with Euratom. Britain’s Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) is set to take on the task.

The problem is that the ONR is facing a post-Brexit skills shortage due to an ageing workforce. Almost half of its workers are over 50 while the average age of its technical specialists, including nuclear inspectors, is 48.

Even before Brexit created additional demands, the ONR says it was having to “recruit specialists in increasing numbers to replace retiring staff”. Its resources are being strained by the government’s plans to build new nuclear power stations while decommissioning the existing fleet of ageing reactors.

There are about 100 nuclear sites to monitor, including Britain’s fuel reprocessing plant at Sellafield in Cumbria and seven nuclear plants that are home to the country’s 15 operational reactors.

However, there is a limited pool of qualified inspectors for the ONR to recruit from and not enough time to train new ones before Brexit. “It takes five years to train an inspector and they need a lot more people so it’s going to take a lot longer than 20 months to put a new regime in place,” Jennifer Baxter, head of energy at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, told the Financial Times.

ONR regulators are currently overseeing construction of the £18bn Hinkley Point project in Somerset, Britain’s first new nuclear plant for more than two decades. It is due to come online in 2025 but the nuclear industry’s worker union, GMB, says this could be “severely” delayed by a premature exit from Euratom. Five further plants are at varying stages of planning as the UK looks to nuclear as a reliable and clean source of energy.

The Brexit Debate Could Become Radioactive

With these plans now at risk, Theresa May is under mounting pressure to reverse her decision to withdraw from Euratom, or to at least wait until Britain is better prepared for a “nuclear Brexit”.

Politically, observers say, it would not be costly for the prime minister to do a U-turn because no one ever claimed that leaving Euratom would be a good thing.

“Nobody voted to leave the EU to come out of Euratom, and no one would think the government was going soft on Brexit if they rowed back on this,” Ed Vaizey, a former Conservative minister, and the Labour MP Rachel Reeves, wrote in the Sunday Telegraph recently.

The government based its case for withdrawing from Euratom solely on legal and technical arguments. However, the politics of the decision, albeit implicit, are fundamental. The government says that Britain must leave Euratom because the organisation is under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, which Mrs May insists must have no role in UK affairs after Brexit.

But, with even Conservative MPs voicing concern, the government has started to soften its position. It declared in July that Britain’s “ambition is to maintain a close and effective relationship” with Euratom, while David Davis, the Brexit secretary, said associate membership of the organisation was possible.

As well as declaring its support for “Britain’s world-leading” nuclear industry, the government has repeatedly stressed its commitment to the “highest standards” of nuclear safety and safeguards. It has also proposed “minimising barriers to civil nuclear trade” and “ensuring mobility of skilled nuclear workers and researchers”.

But the clock is ticking. The Nuclear Institute says: “There is insufficient time between now and the Government’s proposed date for Brexit to safely make all of these essential changes to UK legislation, regulations and international agreements in place of the Euratom Treaty.”

So the debate over Brexit, already polarising, could now become radioactive.

As part of our "Unlocking the future of nuclear" campaign, we recently carried out a survey amongst engineers in both nuclear and other sectors, in order to prompt further discussion around the reported skills gap. Want to know more about what our survey revealed? Download the full report by clicking on the banner below!

Rullion - The future of nuclear