02 February 2018

While the Nuclear Safeguards Bill is an important step towards avoiding a regulatory gap for the UK’s nuclear industry post-Brexit, there are still many uncertainties, argues Susanna Smith.

The European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) is the body – governed by the European Commission – that regulates the nuclear industry across Europe, shaping how nuclear materials are used, transported, sold and disposed of. Membership of Euratom crosses two of the UK Government’s stated red lines in its negotiations over the UK’s future relationship with the EU: Euratom comes under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and requires freedom of movement for nuclear specialists.

The Prime Minister gave notification on 29 March 2017 that the UK would be withdrawing from Euratom. But the Government has also stated it wants to remain as closely aligned as possible with Euratom to "maximise shared interests" and expertise after we leave the EU.

The Nuclear Safeguards Bill, which gets its reading in the House of Lords next week, outlines the new powers the UK will take on when we leave Euratom and is a first step in this process of alignment. The bill expands the remit of the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) to regulate in the UK, taking on new responsibilities for domestic nuclear safeguarding and meeting international obligations.

But the bill alone is insufficient if the UK is to avoid a regulatory gap when it leaves Euratom.

The post-Brexit nuclear regulator needs to develop skills and infrastructure

The ONR has 384 ‘technical specialists’, including nuclear inspectors. To fulfil its new responsibilities and run a safeguards regime that is similar to Euratom, the ONR will need to recruit and train a further 20 inspectors.

It takes five years to train new inspectors, and the opportunity to hire inspectors from outside the UK could be limited as free movement of people comes to an end. Unless a transition period is agreed, there could be insufficient time to build up the ONR’s inspection capability before the UK’s exit. New powers for the regulator will also require new infrastructure and IT systems for reporting, control and inspection arrangements to be put in place.

There are complex international nuclear agreements to be negotiated before we leave

In addition to negotiating a new relationship with Euratom, the UK will have to:

  • replicate a voluntary agreement with the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), the body that sets the international standards for nuclear safeguarding.
  • replicate bilateral Nuclear Co-operation Agreements with third countries such as the US and China. For some of these countries, agreements would require domestic ratification. The US, for example, usually needs congressional approval for nuclear deals.

The clock is ticking. If new agreements aren’t in place by March 2019 – or a sufficient implementation period is not agreed – the UK won’t be able to move fissile material. Foreign investment in the development of nuclear power infrastructure could also be put at risk – a concern with Hinkley Point C in the middle of its construction and the EDF Energy Nuclear New Build project in the pipeline.

If the time-limited implementation period that the Government is negotiating with the European Commission is agreed, that would buy valuable time for these issues to be resolved.

There is uncertainty over the UK’s future contribution to nuclear research and development

The UK has done very well out of Euratom funding for research. The world’s leading fusion project, the Joint European Torus (JET), is based in Culham and receives £60m per year from Euratom, covering 88% of its running costs. While the Government has agreed to contribute to the running of JET until 2020, it is unclear what may happen after that point.

But it is about more than just the money. Co-operation and collaboration is an important part of research in Europe, and retaining mobility of talent after Brexit should be a government priority.

Nuclear is just one of a number of EU regulatory regimes    

The proposed changes to the Office for Nuclear Regulation is just one example of how public bodies will be at the forefront of preparing and implementing Brexit. There are a whole raft of EU regulatory functions that the UK needs take over when it leaves the EU, unless we negotiate continued access or accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

While these regulatory functions affect a whole variety of different policy areas, similar challenges apply in building up capacity to take on new domestic responsibilities and negotiate new agreements with EU and non-EU partners in a short-time period. 


The "implementation period" surely cannot buy time to replicate international bilateral agreements, e.g. with the USA unless the UK remains a member of Euratom for the implementation period. That could be done by an Article 50. Difficult to see how it could be done otherwise.

Ms Smith's article is typical of the "may not" type of Brexit reporting that one hears so much of. These sort of articles appear to be aimed at highlighting risks of failure rather than speculate on the more positive outcomes. The problem I have with this sort of approach is the focus on March 2019, when, pf course, the UK will have much longer than this to make the regulatory corrections it needs. This is not to say that we must not make preperations as quickly as possible, but there appears to be a degree of panic about this approach which is unhelpful. Euratom is a beaurocracy, originally created to assist France and Germany control nuclear development in Europe. The UK, being a seperate nuclear power, aways declined joining and was dragged into it by accident through the developoment of the EEC to the EU. The UK newly-founded regulator (The ONR) is a statutory body and together with the IAEA is implementing a development programme that will create a plausible regulatory regime. However, nuclear control does not lie with regulators, and the UK's issues are more fundamental . Perhaps our focus should be more sharply centred on the governance of the industry rather than a small part of the problem that seems to be making great strides forward? The Culham issue is just a case of funding and should be added to the list of other funding issues this over-crowded island has to deal with.