UK supports staying in Euratom nuclear treaty after Brexit

The Euratom treaty governs all things atomic. The UK government wants to leave it as part of Brexit but British people do not. [Shutterstock]

A majority of British people oppose the government’s plan for the UK to leave the Euratom nuclear treaty after Brexit, a new survey has found.

The Euratom treaty governs everything from nuclear safety and free movement of nuclear experts to waste disposal and fuel regulation. As part of the decision to leave the European Union, the British government has also decided it will pull out of the 60-year-old agreement.

But a new poll conducted by YouGov revealed that 56% of British people want to remain in the treaty, with only 10% agreeing that the UK should leave as part of the Brexit process.

Although separate from the EU’s other treaties, Euratom is governed by the same institutions. Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet has therefore decided that because it is “uniquely joined” to the EU’s main treaty, the UK will also ditch Euratom.

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This decision also stems from the fact that parties to the nuclear framework fall under the European Court of Justice’s mandate and the UK government has made it clear that it wants to cut as many ties as possible with the Luxembourg court.

But the ECJ rarely intervenes in Euratom matters and third-party countries like Japan, Australia and South Africa have been more than fine with the court’s involvement when it has proved necessary.

In June, UK officials admitted to The Times that it would take seven years to replace the set of agreements currently in place and that an association agreement, similar to what Switzerland currently has, is not being seriously considered.

In June, the opposition Labour Party called on the government to drop its ECJ redline and commit to staying in Euratom after March 2019. Shadow Brexit Minister Keir Starmer said: “It’s increasingly clear that the government acted recklessly by giving up on membership of Euratom.”

Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), urged the UK government to “explore the options to retain the benefits of being part of Euratom in negotiation with the European Commission”, citing the poll results as proof the treaty is important to British people.

Conducted in August and commissioned by NIA, the poll also showed that two in five of those who voted to leave the EU in June 2016 want to stay a part of Euratom.

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Industry groups believe that continued membership of the treaty is the preferred option but it seems likely that the UK will pursue a form of third-party deal, having already decided that associative membership is not on the cards.

This would mean a form of transitional agreement which would have to be negotiated during the ongoing Brexit talks. But nuclear industry groups have also warned that this could significantly disrupt the building, operating and decommissioning of nuclear power stations.

Nuclear power generates about 21% of the UK’s electricity but almost half of that capacity is set to be retired by 2025. A new reactor being built at the Hinkley Point power plant has provoked controversy as its construction continues to be behind schedule and over budget.

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Brexit means leaving the EU’s nuclear treaty. But as massive protests in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands showed yesterday, the UK is playing with an emotional and high-risk issue it may not truly understand.

Further Reading

UK willing to keep funding EU nuclear fusion project after Brexit

The British government said on Tuesday (27 June) it would continue to fund a collaborative nuclear fusion project with the European Union to 2020 if the bloc extends Britain's contract to host the facility beyond 2018.