Brexit could endanger Britain’s status as a world leader in nuclear fusion research, reduce future outside investment in nuclear power facilities, and affect thousands of jobs in high-tech nuclear industries, according to some of Britain’s leading researchers. They also said that any damage may turn out to have been entirely avoidable, because the treaties involved are separate from those keeping Britain in the European Union.
Five senior nuclear scientists, including the chair of the UK Atomic Energy Agency, have told BuzzFeed News that the decision to leave Euratom – the European Atomic Energy Community – at the same time as leaving the EU will have profound impacts on Britain’s research, energy production, and industry.
Professor Roger Cashmore, the UKAEA chair, said that the situation was “a mess” and “alarming”, and told BuzzFeed News that by 2025 “you could be doing your writing by candlelight on a typewriter”.
The scientists told BuzzFeed News that there are three main areas that could be affected by Brexit. They are: the transportation of nuclear materials, including nuclear fuel; research, especially fusion research; and overseas investment in development of British nuclear power stations. All of these could have further impacts on British high-tech industries.
Impacts on the movement of nuclear materials
The movement of all nuclear materials – including both naturally occurring uranium and the enriched uranium used as fuel in power stations – is controlled by Euratom. Britain is a major producer of nuclear fuel from naturally occurring uranium. The UK government owns one-third of the European uranium enrichment company Urenco, which has its head office in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, and a major enrichment plant in Capenhurst, Cheshire. There is another enrichment plant in Springfields, near Preston. The enriched fuel is used in British reactors and exported overseas.
Juan Matthews, a visiting professor at the Dalton Nuclear Institute at the University of Manchester, told BuzzFeed News: “In order to continue our business with fuel manufacture and enrichment, we need to have the legislation in place to allow the movement and transport of materials.” But that cross-border legislation is put in place by Euratom and would need to be replaced if we leave. “If there’s a hiatus,” he said. “There are thousands of jobs at stake. It’s a billion-pound industry which could be held up.”
It is also a more direct problem for nuclear power stations, Cashmore said, because without new treaties Britain would not be able to get new fuel once its stockpile of uranium runs out. The exact amount of uranium we have is confidential, but BuzzFeed News understands that a believable estimate is about two years’ worth. Gordon Mackerron, a professor of science and technology policy at Sussex University with a special interest in nuclear energy, told BuzzFeed News that new treaties will almost certainly take a lot longer than two years to put in place. “Some people think seven years,” he said. “They may be exaggerating, but the difference between two years and seven years is great. It’s one of the reasons why there’ll have to be transitional agreements in place.”
Impacts on fusion research
Matthews lives near the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, in Abingdon, just outside Oxford. It's home to the Joint European Torus (JET), the main European fusion research centre. “For Abingdon, this is a serious issue for employment,” he said. “It affects local high-tech businesses.”
At some point, JET is going to be replaced by a new, larger fusion centre in Cadarache, France: ITER, formerly the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor. However, that will not be up and running until the mid-2020s. “It was planned that Culham would be infilling for ITER until then,” said Matthews. “No one knows what’s going to happen now.” The UK has pledged to continue to fund JET until at least 2020, but that depends on the EU agreeing to extend its contract, which expires in 2018.
What’s more, Britain has a large high-tech industry around fusion research and was going to be a significant contributor to ITER. “We were expecting to get about half a billion euros’ [about £440 million] worth of contracts from ITER,” said Cashmore. “We have a certain level of technical know-how. If we come out of Euratom we lose access to bidding for those contracts.”
The UKAEA is lobbying ministers to establish another way of associating with ITER and Fusion For Energy (F4E), the European fusion agency. But so far it is not clear that one will exist. “Leaving Euratom puts large question marks over the research,” said Cashmore, “but it’s also cutting off investment to this high-tech industry.”
Mackerron was less concerned, saying that other countries outside Euratom, such as Japan and Australia, are part of the ITER collaboration. “I don’t understand why it wouldn’t be possible for the UK to gain a similar sort of status to those,” he said.
Leaving the EU has had wider implications for British nuclear research, not just fusion. Martin Freer, director of the Birmingham Centre for Nuclear Education and Research at the University of Birmingham, told BuzzFeed News that about 25% of his department’s funding comes through European channels. He also said that as well as the risk of losing that funding, access to collaborative projects such as ITER will become more difficult. “European partners will look more within the EU for those partners,” he said. “I think over the longer term UK will be excluded, and that exclusion will impact across the whole piece, certainly in nuclear programmes.”
Another scientist told BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity that the situation was “already biting”: “I’ve been trying to put together a research proposal, and a vital European laboratory said they won’t collaborate because they don’t understand the relationship between the EU and the UK. It pisses me off, frankly.”
Impacts on investment in nuclear power
Some of the scientists also warned that investment in British nuclear power stations could be at risk, which would have profound implications for the UK’s energy future. Britain is planning several new nuclear power stations – Hinkley Point C, Sizewell C, and Bradwell are the largest, with each expected to contribute about 7% of Britain’s energy consumption by 2030. Several smaller new reactors are expected to contribute another 15% between them.
Francis Livens, a professor of radiochemistry at the Dalton Nuclear Institute at the University of Manchester, told BuzzFeed News: “We need overseas investment big-style. Hinkley is only possible because of big Chinese cheques, Hitachi [an investor in some of the smaller reactors] are saying they need partners, Toshiba [another investor] is in all sorts of trouble. We need more investment.
“But there’s a lot of uncertainty. If I’m going to invest £2 billion of my money, am I going to do something uncertain, or something where I can be sure the arrangements are more secure and stable?”
Matthews added that as well as the uncertainty, the British government has simply lost its focus on nuclear power since Brexit. “The distraction is interfering with other government issues,” he said. “We were looking at small modular reactors [SMRs, a cheaper, smaller, and more flexible type of station]. There was a government programme for people to submit to by May last year. There was a promise of a road map and funding, and then it all went quiet.
“Speaking to people in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, it sounds as though they’re just too busy. The ministers are too busy.”
Another problem, said Cashmore, is Euratom's control of the movement of nuclear materials, which includes things like reactor components. “I would expect that to include those components that come from France to Hinkley Point,” he said, “if you're not in Euratom, you'd need to have treaties with France to allow them to bring this stuff to Britain."
However, Mackerron said that while the nuclear programmes were indeed facing problems, Brexit and leaving Euratom were far from the biggest. “The major disincentive to investing is it’s very expensive,” he said. France’s EDF Energy, the main investor in Hinkley Point C, announced earlier this month that the project is expected to be £1.5 billion over budget and a year behind schedule. Investors are not in place for several other projects. “If people tell you that the problem of investment is the awfulness of Brexit, they’re being disingenuous,” he said. “The National Audit Office says Hinkley could cost consumers £30 billion. Euratom seems a trivial problem compared to financing issues.”
A possibly unnecessary decision
Whatever the actual impacts of leaving Euratom, it’s far from clear whether it was a risk Britain needed to take, according to the scientists. “There’s been lots of legal advice since the referendum,” said Cashmore. “You can find some saying Euratom is tied to the EU and some saying it’s completely separate.
“Politicians don't understand the intricate nature of these treaties set up for safety and nonproliferation. They're not trivial things, they've been developed over 40, 50 years. It's not just a matter of putting a big X on the front of the treaty.”
Britain was a signatory to the Euratom treaty nearly two decades before the EU existed, but membership requires being subject to the European Court of Justice. “The Lisbon Treaty says membership of Euratom is not dependent on membership of the EU,” said Matthews. “The real issue is the clause relating to the ECJ. Theresa May is driving this UKIP-style programme of dissociating ourselves with it.”
The way to minimise the possible damage, Matthews said, is “for the government to say ‘we’re going to stay in Euratom’. Countries like Israel do it, it’s not exceptional.”
A government spokesperson told BuzzFeed News: "The UK supports Euratom and will want to see continuity of co-operation and standards. We remain absolutely committed to the highest standards of nuclear safety, safeguards and support for the industry.
“Our aim is clear we want to maintain our mutually successful civil nuclear co-operation with the EU.”
Tom Chivers is a science writer for BuzzFeed and is based in London.
Contact Tom Chivers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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