Brexit Britain May Have a Nuclear Fuel Problem

  • U.K. leaving EU atomic rules may snarl fuel shipments
  • Quitting Euratom seen disrupting commerical ties beyond the EU

Britain’s decision to leave the Europe Union is raising risks for 66,000 workers in the nuclear power industry and threatening to disrupt the flow of atomic fuel across international borders.

The government in deciding to quit the EU also plans to pull out of the continent’s 60-year-old nuclear safety and research organization, according to a Feb. 2 policy paper from Prime Minister Theresa May’s administration. Industry officials say leaving the European Atomic Community, or Euratom, would require the U.K. to spend years replicating rules and international agreements needed to trade radioactive materials with other nations.

“The most challenging aspect will be to guarantee continued assurance of supply,” said Andreas Persbo, the executive director of London’s VERTIC center, which advises EU governments on nuclear policy. “The change to the U.K. systems will affect several bilateral nuclear-supply agreements.”

Just as bankers have made London a global financial hub, nuclear workers have turned the U.K. into a central cog servicing the world’s flow of atomic materials. Membership in Euratom has helped Britain become a leading manufacturer of reactor fuel and a key participant in EU-led nuclear research projects. Leaving Euratom will require the industry to create new ways of doing business -- which is not straightforward.

There are 65,791 people working in the nuclear industry in Britain, according to the U.K. Nuclear Industry Association.

Source: Nuclear Industry Association

Euratom’s main function to safeguard nuclear fuel, making sure it isn’t diverted to make weapons, a function the U.K. will lose once it departs the group. Nuclear power plants need that certification to buy fuel on the open market.

About a 1,000 days of Euratom inspectors are needed every year to cover about 100 U.K. nuclear sites including Urenco Ltd.’s manufacturing facility in Capenhurst as well as the U.K.’s fuel reprocessing center at Sellafield and at the seven nuclear plants home to the country’s 15 operational reactors. The monitoring is done by other EU nationals, who carry treaty rights giving them free movement in the U.K.

While Brexit Secretary David Davis has said responsibility for nuclear inspections could be taken over by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which performs similar accounting around the world, the U.K. would need to negotiate a new agreement. IAEA spokesman Fredrick Dahl said the agency is aware of the government’s statements but declined further comment.

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The U.K.’s Nuclear Industry Association and the London-based World Nuclear Association have cautioned against a hard exit from Euratom, which would put jobs or billions of pounds of investments at risk. The nuclear industry’s worker union, GMB, said in a statement on Feb. 1 that a premature Euratom exit could “severely delay” the 18 billion pound ($22 billion) Hinkley Point C reactor project promoted by Electricite de France SA.

Industry lawyers have suggested delaying the Euratom exit until after the separation from the EU is complete in order to give themselves time to complete the technical agreements needed by the nuclear industry, according to Jonathan Leech, a nuclear lawyer at Prospect Law Ltd. in London. Choosing to run concurrent negotiation tracks with the EU and Euratom could raise risks.

“The government will need to be confident that, once triggered, the two-year Euratom exit timetable is sufficient to put in place replacement arrangements to avoid a damaging hiatus for the U.K. nuclear industry,” Leech wrote on Wednesday. “Without demonstrably adequate safeguards key countries will simply cease trade with the U.K. in nuclear materials, technology and know-how..”

Keeping U.K. nuclear-industry workers employed after Euratom will require new deals with non-EU countries including Australia, Canada, Japan and the U.S., according to Persbo, who called the impending negotiations “tricky business” for the international uranium trade.

Exiting Euratom could also exact a heavy price on British scientists and engineers developing next-generation nuclear technologies. While Euratom has guaranteed the 283 million euro ($302 million) budget for the U.K.’s flagship research project, the Joint European Torus, or JET fusion reactor, future funding is uncertain unless EU workers retain the right to work and live in the U.K.

Following Switzerland’s 2014 referendum restricting EU citizens’ access to its labor market, the bloc responded by curtailing Swiss participation in research projects run with Euratom to “partial association.” It was only in December, after Switzerland “fulfilled the EU’s condition on free movement of people,” that the Swiss regained full access, according to the EU.

“The commission is unlikely to treat the U.K. any differently,” Persbo said.

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