The Cable

Brexit Could Nuke Britain’s Nuclear Energy Industry

A new parliamentary report warns of an industry meltdown unless things change.

nuke crop

U.K. lawmakers warned Tuesday the country’s nuclear energy industry could go belly-up because of Brexit, adding a new radioactive layer to London’s complex breakup with the European Union.

Parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee warned that Britain’s nuclear industry will struggle to weather the Brexit storm in large part because it would have to leave Euratom. Euratom, the pan-European atomic energy regulator, sets Europe-wide energy regulations, conducts safety inspections, and coordinates buying nuclear fuel. Since Britain became a member in 1973, it’s built its nuclear energy industry around reliance on Euratom.

“The Government has failed to consider the potentially disastrous ramifications of its Brexit objectives for the nuclear industry,” MP Iain Wright, chair of the influential cross-party committee said Tuesday in light of a newly released report on the country’s nuclear industry. “The repercussions of failing to do so are huge. The continued operations of the UK nuclear industry are at risk,” he added.

The report shows that Britain will have a much more complicated and costly time untangling itself from the European Union’s nuclear energy regime than the government hopes. And any disruptions to Britain’s nuclear energy industry could have major economic and environmental blowback: Nuclear power generates some 20 percent of the country’s total electricity. Though with nearly half of the country’s nuclear power generation set to retire by 2025, any nuclear fuel supply disruptions could lead to blackouts.

Britain today operates 15 nuclear plants, with another one, dubbed Hinkley Point C, to come online in 2025 (though Brexit could disrupt that too, as EU and Euratom member France is helping build it).

Leaving Euratom would pull the rug out from under Britain’s industry, said Simone Tagliapietra, an energy expert with Brussels-based think tank Bruegel. Euratom has nuclear cooperation agreements to supply fuel and cooperate on research with some 20 other countries and international bodies around the world. Britain would have to re-negotiate all of those if it left Euratom, including with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“The U.K. would have to hit the reset button on everything,” Tagliapietra told Foreign Policy.

And hashing out international negotiations on fissile materials aren’t exactly quick, simple tasks. The parliamentary committee warned that leaving Euratom and trying to renegotiate all those deals from scratch would “severely inhibit nuclear trade and research and threaten power supplies.”

And it will be costly. Experts say decommissioning one EU-owned nuclear research facility, the Joint European Torus project in rural Oxfordshire, could cost $336 million alone. Half of the country’s nuclear capacity is on track to be retired by 2025, meaning there’s many more costly decommissioning efforts on the horizon.

“This is going to create big costs for the United Kingdom,” Tagliapietra said.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s government said in January it would leave Euratom because the organization is under the jurisdiction of the EU’s European Court of Justice. May refused to countenance any U.K. institutions remaining under EU control after the United Kingdom and Europe divorce.

“We are not aware of any substantive arguments in favor of leaving Euratom made either during the referendum campaign or afterwards,” the parliamentary report said. “This outcome seems to be an unfortunate, and perhaps unforeseen, consequence of the prime minister’s decision to leave the jurisdiction of the ECJ.”

The report urged May to sort out some form of transitional arrangement to delay its exit from Euratom, or come to a new third-country arrangement with the governing body.

May’s Conservative government tried to reframe the report into a political issue ahead of the country’s snap elections in June.

“The future of the nuclear industry in this country can only be protected by a prime minister who will actually stand up for Britain and nuclear power in Brexit negotiations,” Greg Clark, Britain’s energy and business secretary said after the report’s release. He said May represented “strong leadership” on the issue while her “floundering” political opponents push to decommission nuclear power plants, but didn’t address the report’s criticisms of the unintended consequences of Brexit for nuclear power.

The report also urged London to “remain committed to domestic climate change policies and not let Brexit undermine emissions reduction targets,” but that may be easier said than done.

Tagliapietra said Britain’s nuclear industry is key to the country’s emissions cutting obligations under the international Paris climate change agreement. But if Brexit pushes Britain’s nuclear industry into meltdown, its climate change pledges could go, too.

Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. @robbiegramer

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