One of the unfortunate bi-products of a referendum is that it leaves little space for nuance. Victor exults and vanquished grieves, and so it has become with Brexit. Whichever way you voted, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the prospect of Brexit is causing anxiety for many people on both sides of the Channel.
This week’s focus for that discomfort has been on the somewhat esoteric and complex issue of nuclear regulation, centering on a row about our exit from Euratom, the EU wide body that governs the safety and movement of nuclear material, including medical isotopes, used in imaging and cancer treatment. “Move Threatens Supply of Key Cancer Treatment Material” screamed the headline on London’s Evening Standard.
When you zoom out, however, you see a different picture.
The first thing you’ll observe is that plenty of countries outside Euratom have vigorous and ambitious civil nuclear research programmes. In fact, we already have bilateral agreements with many of them. Only last December the UK and Japan signed just such an agreement, the first of its kind for the Japanese, deepening our cooperation on research, development and nuclear security. Another such agreement is in the works with South Korea. They join a list that includes the USA and China.
These agreements depend on the current Euratom safety regimes, which also govern the movement of medical isotopes, and the government has undertaken to replicate those regulations to the satisfaction of the International Atomic Energy Agency so that material and expertise can continue to be bought and sold. In fact, what’s been lost in the anxious cries is the Queen’s Speech promise of a Nuclear Safeguards Bill to give our existing Office for Nuclear Regulation powers to take on the role and responsibilities required to meet our international safeguarding and nuclear non-proliferation obligations. The ONR, which already has a close working relationship with the IAEA, strives to be “universally respected for securing confidence in nuclear safety and security”. If countries like Ukraine can do it themselves, then so can we, not least since we are acknowledged already to be world leaders on nuclear safety.
But it is perhaps worth looking at the future of Euratom itself.
There is really only one country in the EU that is serious about civil nuclear power. With 58 power plants, and host to the ground-breaking international fusion reactor research programme, in which many non-EU countries participate, France leads the way. No one else comes close. But it’s worse than that. Back in 2011, Germany, by far the biggest contributor to the EU budget, decided to phase out all nuclear power by 2022. Belgium, under the leadership of our new friend Guy Verhofstadt, decided to do the same by 2025. Italy and Denmark have already made it illegal. Greece and Spain are also phasing out their remaining plants. Austria, who are soon to assume the presidency of the EU, won’t even allow nuclear material to be transported or stored on their soil (although I bet there’s an exception for medical isotopes). Even research reactors in many of these countries are being decommissioned.
Add to this broad hostility the fact that the aggressively anti-nuclear Green party peppers the parliaments of many EU nations, and has 51 seats in the EU parliament itself and you begin to see the end of serious allocations of funding to nuclear research. Clearly, the EU is firmly turning its back on nuclear, with France the last hold-out.
Arguably, we should support the French by maintaining a close relationship with Euratom, but given the critical importance of this technology to our own power, defence and medical needs, and the widespread antipathy towards it in the rest of the EU, surely it is strategically wise for us to develop our own regulatory capability?
And given that nuclear research is an increasingly global enterprise, shouldn’t we take on a leadership role, and play our part in pushing for more global regulation and research programmes?
Whether you voted Leave or Remain, there are obvious reasons to doubt the commitment of the EU to nuclear technology, and plenty of compelling reasons for both the UK and France to look afresh at alliances with more distant devotees. It’s not the UK you should be worried about, it’s Euratom.
Kit Malthouse is the Member of Parliament for North West Hampshire and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Life Sciences.