Comment: UK nuclear sector sounds Brexit “cliff edge” warning

Industry and government are apparently in-step on the UK’s nuclear post-Brexit priorities, but will their concerns make it to the negotiating table?

The government’s announcement that an exit from the EU also means an exit from Euratom – the body that regulates European nuclear trade and activity – has been causing consternation in the sector since it was announced in February’s “Brexit” white paper.

Crashing out of Euratom could derail UK fusion research

These concerns reached fever pitch this week with the launch of three reports. They warn of the disastrous impact on the sector – such as by deterring international investment, derailing UK nuclear R&D, and potentially threatening the UK’s supply of energy – if Britain fails to devise a credible alternative by the time the UK leaves the EU.

Perhaps the most strongly worded of these reports is “Exiting Euratom” published on Tuesday by the UK’s Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) – the trade body which represents companies operating in the UK’s civil nuclear sector.

The paper sets out the priority areas for negotiations with the European Commission as the UK ceases to be a full member of the Euratom community, and outlines a series of steps government will need to take to enable the nuclear sector to continue its work with other countries within and outside the EU. These include replacing the Nuclear Co-operation Agreements (NCA) with key nuclear markets; agreeing a new funding arrangement for the UK’s involvement in European Union nuclear R&D, and generally maintaining confidence in the sector in order to secure critical investment.

Warning that failure to ensure all of this is in place by the time Brexit negotiations conclude will be damaging for the sector Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, said: “Without new arrangements in place by the time the UK leaves the Euratom community, there is scope for real and considerable disruption.”

Nevertheless the report warns that replacing the mechanisms of EURATOM with an effective alternative in just 22 months will be exceptionally difficult. And it calls on the government to seek an agreement with the EU that existing arrangements will continue to apply until the process of agreeing new arrangements is concluded.

Gratifyingly, these concerns are echoed by two separate government reports: one from the House of Lords Science & Technology Committee, and the other from the Business Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. Both reports call on the government to delay its exit from Euratom and stress the need for government to work closely with industry on the development of a plan that preserves the essential benefits of Euratom membership. The BEIS committee report goes onto say that if energy policy strays too far from agreed European standards, the UK risks becoming a “dumping ground” for energy inefficient products.

Few – if any – areas of UK industry have been spared the uncertainty prompted by last June’s referendum result, but the UK nuclear sector faces arguably one of the most complex and high stakes situations. A failure to secure a suitable replacement to Euratom could derail the UK’s nuclear ambitions, impact our energy supply and  – as we’ve previously written – put the UK at risk of losing its lead in fusion and other areas of nuclear research.

If there’s cause for optimism, it’s that away from the posturing and “tough talk” of the Brexit negotiations there does appear to be a genuine consensus across industry and government that simply crashing out of Euratom is not an option.

A failure to resolve these concerns constitute an act of industrial and economic vandalism. Let’s hope Britain’s “crack” team of Brexit negotiators are listening.