Science at risk – BREXIT and the dangers to Britain’s nuclear industry

One of the biggest fallouts from Brexit is the future of EURATOM, the European Atomic Energy Community, which manages the procurement and movement of all nuclear materials and waste across the EU, and JET (Joint European Torus), which is a nuclear fusion facility based in Culham, Oxfordshire.

EURATOM predates the formation of the EU but they are now legally entangled. The main sticking point for the Tories is their insistence on leaving the European Court of Justice which oversees the agreement. The hard Brexiteers’ obsession with the ECJ meant that while exiting the EU did not have to include leaving EURATOM, the Brexit White Paper made it clear that this is definitely going to happen if the Tories are in power.

This an important issue in Oxford west and Abingdon locally as the prospect of closing the £60m a year JET facility would lead to a direct loss of 1000 jobs in the area. But it goes well beyond that. JET itself it vitally important the UK as a whole. It is not only the centre for research into fusion technology which one day may be a massive contributor to the fight against climate change, but also includes cutting edge research that has led to breakthroughs in engineering and material science. Estimates suggest we make three times the UK’s investment back on the project thanks to spin offs and locally grown expertise.

There is also a human factor here. Scientists from 35 nations, a large proportion from the EU, are already leaving, or thinking of it, due to the uncertainty about their future here. Britain cannot afford to let more go. I have been told it is becoming very difficult to recruit. We must guarantee their rights now to plug this brain drain and maintain the UK’s position as a centre for scientific excellence. We need to guarantee the rights of EU citizens to work in the UK now.

The other thing that we risk are “Brown Outs” – the reduction or restriction of electrical power in a particular area. Our nuclear industry is governed by EURATOM. From the procurement to the movement and waste disposal of nuclear materials. Once out of Agreement, it will be extremely difficult to safeguard the 20% of electricity supply that comes from nuclear. To compensate it is likely we would either need to buy energy from abroad at inflated prices or the Government will use this as an excuse to move to polluting sources of energy like fracking. This is hardly a ‘strong and stable’ outcome!

So, what are the options? We could negotiate “third country” status like the USA with a special cooperation agreement. This will enable us to participate in some programs, but might still not save JET. Though EURATOM can technically fund JET they are unlikely to do so with the U.K. No longer an EU member state. Britain could fund it alone, but then we would struggle to achieve the same level of international cooperation.

The other option would be for Britain to become an “Associate Country” like Switzerland. This is generally accepted to be the next best alternative. But time is running out. Britain has funding for JET until late 2018 and negotiations are still ongoing to extend it to 2020. If we leave, an extension will most likely be off the agenda and negotiating Associate Country status takes at least 21 months.

Furthermore, if there is any disagreement over the terms the only plausible adjudicator remains the ECJ. So will the Tories agree to this? I argue, for the sake of the country, that they have to.

The government and local conservative MP’s know all this. My opponent in OxWAB was until recently chair of the science select committee after all, and must be fully aware of these dangers. But they are putting their own Party’s interests above above those of the country and U.K. Science. We need to guarantee our role in  EURATOM and JET, and do it now.


* Layla Moran is the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon

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  • Glad to see that someone else has seen the Eurotom aside in T.May’s Article 50 notification, and recognised the significance of it; well done Layla for digging deeper and starting to get to grips with the implications.

  • Graham Evans 8th May '17 - 2:00pm

    One of the problems of the anti-Brexit message is that these sorts of issues are only understood by a relatively small number of specialists, although ultimately they could have a big impact on the wider population. Even where they could have a direct impact on lots of local jobs (as for instance in the automotive industry) voters in places like Sunderland seem to think it will all turn out right in the end. Project Fear clearly failed during the Referendum campaign, but unless we can come up with a new narrative to address these sorts of issues I suspect our appeal to the facts will fall on deaf ears.

  • Hang on, ITER is being built in Cadarache anyway and Culham has been on borrowed time for a while. As to Euratom, we are also members of IAEA in our own right and we are a weapons state anyway.
    Brexit will do no harm to the UK nuclear industry as it has been destroyed by our own government already. Only the daftest ideas come out of govt on nuclear. The latest is a push for small modular reactors the commercial case for which is pure fiction.

  • Layla Moran 8th May '17 - 10:34pm

    ITER comes online in 2025. The plan was always to wind down in a managed way until then and make sure we make the most of the investment to keep the skills. However this unmanaged cliff edge situation is the worst of all worlds.

  • Andrew McCaig 9th May '17 - 7:12am

    I do wonder if the Chinese government might have something to do with this decision too? Weakening the European nuclear industry would be a great result for them…

  • No. It’s time the nuclear industry was self-funding including R&D.

    70 years ago we were promised electricity too cheap to meter. It hasn’t happened and now research should be directed towards the lower hanging fruit of genuinely green energy.

  • Stephen Hesketh 9th May '17 - 8:53pm

    Well said Richard S.
    As someone with a scientific background I am 100% behind collaborative fundamental research (in any area) but what you say about the civil nuclear power industry and the party returning to supporting genuinely renewable (and job-creating) technologies is spot on.

    We are not in coalition with the Tories and we should return to Lib Dem positions and not those adopted in coalition out of nothing more than transient political necessity.

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