What has been missed or misunderstood in this week’s Euratom debate?

July 16, 2017

Until the last few weeks, few people outside the physics and legal communities had even heard of Euratom.  However, the Government’s view that leaving the EU also must also mean leaving Euratom has made this previously obscure treaty front page news and a political battleground.

The potential downsides on the UK’s nuclear power industry of leaving have been well documented this week. But what exactly have the media either missed or misunderstood in the debate?

What is Euratom?

The genesis of what we now know as the European Union can be traced back to three treaties. Firstly, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) Treaty of 1951, and then the ‘Treaties of Rome’ in 1957 that established the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC, otherwise known as ‘Euratom’). Significantly, while the EEC has evolved over time to form the basis of the European Union, the Euratom Treaty has remained relatively unchanged. It has regulated civilian nuclear power within the signatory states since 1957, and in the UK since it joined the EEC in 1973. Today the Euratom Treaty and Community provide a common market and regulatory framework across the following areas:

  • The movement of fuel, equipment, services and intellectual property for civil nuclear power;
  • The movement of certain other non-nuclear power related radioactive material that could be dangerous to human health or the environment;
  • Compliance with international safety standards under the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA);
  • EU level nuclear research, including the fusion experiments in Oxfordshire (the Joint European Torus) and France (Iter).

Do we have to leave Euratom?

Both the UK Government and officials from the European Commission are currently of the position that leaving the EU means leaving Euratom. This may indeed be the case as the EEC and Euratom have been closely linked since the Merger Treaty of 1965 and they have only become more entwined ever since. This treaty combined the executive bodies of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), Euratom and the EEC into a single institutional structure, so it is difficult to see how the UK could remain full members of Euratom outside the EU.

In addition to this, it is worth saying simply that we are where we are. The Article 50 letter made reference to leaving both the EU and Euratom. It is not possible to simply change our minds and back out of leaving. Even if it were, it would set a precedent for the whole Brexit process.

Will there be a cliff edge when we leave?

Many of the press stories this week have portrayed the Euratom decision as a binary choice: either we stay and everything is fine, or we leave and everything goes wrong. This is an oversimplification of the facts. If we are to leave Euratom, then the UK will need to create a new regulatory regime in its place, overseen by the IAEA. This would need to comprise a new framework concerning nuclear activities in the UK, and a set of bilateral or multilateral treaties with other nuclear states concerning trade and cooperation on civilian nuclear power. It is doable, but complicated.

The World Nuclear Association estimates that the UK has at least 50 such agreements in place with other countries, over 30 of which depend to varying degrees on Euratom membership. These would need to be replaced when we leave Euratom.

If we stick to our March 2019 deadline for leaving the EU and Euratom, most of these agreements would need to be negotiated and signed as independent UK bi-lateral agreements before then. There is widespread scepticism in the industry that this is possible. More time is needed and one suggested solution is that under the terms of the Article 50 secession treaty the UK could agree to transitional membership of Euratom on some form of ‘associate’ basis (possibly subject to ongoing payments to the EU). Even though the legal implications of associate membership have not been fully clarified, political momentum seems to be moving in this direction.  The details of what associate membership means, at least for a transitional period, will most likely form the basis of Euratom-related negotiations with the EU starting this week.

Medical Isotopes

Isotopes that emit small amounts of radiation are used in the in the diagnosis of various diseases and treatments of cancer. The UK has no indigenous production so it must import all of its medical isotopes. Unlike nuclear fuel, their short half-life means that they cannot be stockpiled. When Science Minister Jo Johnson was asked if supplies would be disrupted by pulling out of Euratom, he replied that they would not be. His reasoning was that because such materials are not fissile (you cannot power a reactor or build a nuclear bomb with them) they are not subject to the same safeguards as uranium. But Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran pointed out that the Euratom Treaty does cover ‘artificial radioactive isotopes’. So who is correct? Neither and both. The treaty does make reference to these isotopes, but only in respect to free trade and tariffs. It essentially makes it illegal to put up tariff barriers on the trade of nuclear goods and services within the EU.

The transport and use of such isotopes for medical purposes is indeed regulated by Euratom directives; but because these materials are weakly radioactive and do not pose a proliferation risk, the regulations are not of the same level as those for fissile material. They are of a similar level to the regulations on the movement, storage and use of chemicals dangerous to human health. So before leaving Euratom, the UK would need to create its own regulatory system that complied with IAEA rules for the import and export of low level radioactive materials to and from EU countries, but this is not as onerous a task as negotiating 30 international treaties and it should not be impossible to complete this within the two years available.

The oil industry’s reliance on radioactive substances

A less reported risk of leaving Euratom relates to the oil and gas industry. As part of the exploration process, companies drill exploratory boreholes and complete a process known as ‘well logging’. A specialist logging tool is sent down the well to make various measurements of the rock formations at different depths. One of the most important components of logging tools is the radioactive materials (or ‘sources’) that are used to measure the density and porosity of the rock, which in turn gives an indication of the magnitude of recoverable oil and gas. Radioactive material is also used in diagnostic tracers in the fracking process to assess the depth of fractures into the rock and in certain other specialist areas of the oil industry.

The transport of such materials within the EU is currently regulated by Euratom and it is not clear whether the UK has enough indigenous supply to be self-sufficient if withdrawal from the treaty causes disruptions. In addition to this, Euratom regulations may also cover the transport of low level radioactive waste that is a bi-product of the fracking process. If the Government wants to emulate the success of the fracking industry in the USA, it will need to ensure that the import and export of ‘sealed sources’ and other radioactive materials used in the oil and gas industry can proceed smoothly. This issue has not been discussed at all in the Euratom debate so far. Like for medical isotopes, again what would be required is our own system that satisfies IAEA rules. Setting up such an independent import and export system should not be difficult, but we need to get a move on if this is what we are going to do.

The status of Euratom’s nuclear safety inspectors

Finally, the employment status of nuclear safety inspectors based in the UK is uncertain. Euratom employ around 160 such inspectors, many of whom will be British citizens living in the UK and working at sites like Sellafield. Will they continue to be employed by Euratom or will the UK set up a new safety body and offer them employment? If they refuse, will the UK be able to find qualified people to fill these jobs? These are important questions that need to be answered by Government. The potentially affected workers also deserve clarification soon.

The clock is ticking

There are no show-stopping barriers to leaving Euratom, but this debate is showing us that extricating ourselves from the EU and its institutions is a complicated task. It may yet throw up more surprises. A smooth withdrawal from Euratom will take many levers of the state and industry pulling together to make it happen. There imminently needs to be a national discussion about how to do this. Exiting Euratom will be the first real test of the UK’s ability to leave the EU and open up to the world.

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