Why Brexit Is Going Nuclear Over Leaving a Regulator

When U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May formally began the Brexit process in March, her government also exercised its right to withdraw from the European Union’s nuclear regulator, the European Atomic Energy Community. The decision has drawn opposition by the nuclear industry and from within May’s own Conservative Party. 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. Leaving the regulator known as Euratom will require the industry to create new ways of doing business.

1. Doesn’t leaving the EU require leaving Euratom?

Not necessarily. Lawyers have argued that the U.K. could remain a Euratom member, post-Brexit, since the regulator is "separate and legally distinct" from the EU, created under a different treaty 60 years ago. It’s unclear, though, whether May’s government could, even if it wanted to, maneuver a U-turn reversing its decision to leave, now that notice has been given.

2. What is Euratom?

It regulates nuclear safety and security across the bloc. One of its main functions is to safeguard nuclear materials, ensuring they aren’t lost or diverted. It also helps manage billions of euros spent annually on EU research and development programs. Membership in Euratom has helped Britain become a top reactor-fuel manufacturer and a key participant in EU-led nuclear research projects.

3. What’s at stake for the U.K.?

More than 60,000 people are employed by the U.K. nuclear industry. Euratom is the glue that binds nuclear scientists researching in Oxford to atomic fuel-makers in Sellafield to workers constructing new reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset. In the absence of international agreements to replicate or replace the services provided by Euratom, research funding could grind to a halt, and the U.K.’s link in international nuclear trade could be broken. British media have reported that leaving Euratom might delay care of cancer patients in need of radiation therapy.

4. What are the U.K.’s alternatives?

May’s government is opening talks with the EU and negotiating individual nuclear agreements with other countries, according to Energy Minister Richard Harrington. The U.K. would also need to reach a new Voluntary Offer Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency; that agreement covers the safeguarding of nuclear material and ensures U.K. access to nuclear trade. The U.K. may eventually seek associate membership to Euratom in order to access nuclear research and development projects, though any such an arrangement would require at least some oversight by the European Court of Justice and freedom of movement by EU nationals -- both of which run counter to the ideals of the Brexit campaign.

5. What are the risks in leaving Euratom?

While replicating nuclear safeguards agreements will be tricky and establishing new trade deals will take time, the biggest risk of leaving Euratom is the possibility of being frozen out of new scientific discoveries. The U.K. would need to negotiate an equity stake in the 20-billion euro ($23 billion) International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, in order to ensure access to new fusion research and technologies. U.K. scientists and universities could lose access to the 80-billion euro Horizon 2020 budget earmarked by the EU and Euratom for research and development.

6. What are the potential benefits of leaving Euratom?

Since the U.K. would no longer be bound by European Court of Justice oversight, it could potentially avoid costly upgrades to nuclear safety or security mandated from Brussels. The U.K. could potentially fast-track trials of untested nuclear technologies like molten salt reactors without the burden of achieving consensus among multilateral rulemakers.

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