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UK Government faces difficult decision over departure from Euratom

11 July 2017

The UK’s participation in the European atomic energy community, Euratom, is under threat from the Article 50 legislation that triggered the start of the two-year Brexit process in March. Now, some Conservative parliamentarians are saying they will vote against the Government if the UK decides to leave the organisation.

Dungeness B nuclear power station - Image: EDF Energy
Dungeness B nuclear power station - Image: EDF Energy

Euratom is not technically part of the EU but is governed by a separate legal relationship with the European Court of Justice, which the UK Government has said will have no jurisdiction over the country’s affairs after Brexit.

For the nuclear industry, rapid departure from Euratom without a clear replacement would lead to serious problems. British power stations might not be able to source nuclear fuel if it cannot be legally transported across borders.

The shipment of medical isotopes used in scans and cancer treatment might also be jeopardised. European workers on shared research projects, such as experimental fusion reactors, face an equally uncertain future without Euratom’s separate guarantees of freedom of movement.

MPs seem finally to have taken the issue on board following a warning from the Royal College of Radiologists on how it might affect the availability of radioisotopes used in medicine.

There are a number of possible solutions to this problem, but none will be easy to enact. If the UK is to remain a full member of Euratom, the Article 50 legislation will have to be amended to remove the specific clause. Associate membership is possible — Switzerland is an associate member — but this would mean the ECJ still has jurisdiction, if only in a limited way, within the UK.

If new treaties are put into place to ensure the UK can still operate nuclear facilities and have access to radioactive materials, it would necessitate the formation of a non-ECJ legal body to oversee them.

Dame Sue Ion, honorary president of the Nuclear Skills Academy and former chair of the Nuclear Innovation Research Advisory Board, said: “Associate membership is better than nothing, but it all depends on exactly what that means. It’s normally associated with access to Euratom research, not the wider cover provided by the treaty for everything else [such as transport of nuclear materials].”

She added: “The best option is clearly to stay in, which is entirely possible.”

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