Speaking to a House of Commons Select Committee on the impact of Brexit on the UK nuclear industry, Rupert Cowen, a senior nuclear energy lawyer at Prospect Law, told MPs that leaving Euratom could end the country's trade in nuclear fuel.
Euratom is a 1957 European treaty created to promote research and cooperation on nuclear power, which oversees the non-proliferation of nuclear materials and inspections of UK nuclear material, such as the stockpile of waste at Sellafield in Cumbria. The treaty also coordinates European research into atomic power.
The UK government says Brexit means leaving Euratom when Article 50 is finally triggered. Energy minister Jesse Norman said at the hearing that this move was a "regrettable necessity," although Mr. Cowen believes it both very dangerous and entirely needless.
"Unlike most other trade arrangements the UK will be exiting and renegotiating when it leaves the EU, if we don't get this right, business simply stops — there will be no nuclear trade of any kind. This is a perfect example of a political decision trumping a legal one — Euratom and the EU are entirely separate entities, and leaving the latter does not necessitate leaving the former," Mr. Cowen told Sputnik.
In his testimony to the Committee, David Senior, an executive at the Office for Nuclear Regulation, welcomed the prospect of exiting Euratom, suggesting it would mean a reduced regulatory burden for the nuclear industry, as a result of not having to comply with its directives.
However, Mr. Cowen isn't convinced this would be a good thing. Instead, he believes, the long-term benefits of reduced regulation are more than offset by the negative short-term implications of lacking Euratom-certified safeguards and principles. For instance, most of the UK's own nuclear deals, including Hinkley Point, are contingent on Euratom to some degree.
"It may take at least two years to negotiate new international treaties and agreements, that emulate the structures an already in place with Euratom, and meet its requirements, before the nuclear industry could do anything — make and trade fuel, sell innovations, offer services overseas, more. Firms really won't be able to conduct any activities in that time, which could mean the UK's own nuclear fuels run out, in turn meaning we have to switch the reactors off. Companies like Urenco will just leave.
"They say they've considered the issue very seriously, but I don't believe them. There is no confidence in their statements in the industry, either. They're just mouthing words," Mr. Cowen said.
Mr. Cowen is not alone in his skepticism. Speaking to the committee, Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the UK Nuclear Industry Association, said the sector had has made it "crystal clear" to the government that its preferred position was to maintain membership of Euratom, as the treaty made the movement of nuclear goods, people and services much more efficient. There is a "lot to be done" to put in place measures replacing Euratom.
"The potential is for there to be a very hard period during which there are lots of other things the government has to deal with, that could leave it in a position where some of these things aren't in place," Tom Greatrex said.
Deputy General Secretary Sue Ferns said in a statement jeopardizing years of knowledge and the UK's position at the forefront of nuclear fusion was "ill-informed, irresponsible and unnecessary."
"The credibility of UK science, technology, engineering and maths will be undermined if we restrict international collaboration. Programmes like these are just not scalable to a national level. They depend on huge infrastructure, and niche expertise pooled from research institutes all over the world," Ferns said.