United Kingdom discusses implications of its departure from Euratom treaty

by David Lowry

Recently in the United Kingdom a major political debate has broken out over whether the planned departure by the UK from the European Union also must mean the UK's departure from Euratom.

In a debate in the UK Parliament on the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill held on 1 February 2017, the then British minister for Brexit, David Jones, stated clearly the UK Government position on Euratom;

Euratom and the EU share a common institutional framework, including the European Court of Justice, a role for the Commission and decision making in the Council, making them uniquely legally joined.

The Annual report of the Department for Business, Energy and Innovation Strategy (BEIS), which is responsible for nuclear policy, published on 19 July 2017, stated:

We are maintaining a strong nuclear safeguards regime outside of Euratom. Our objective in the negotiations will be to continue a constructive relationship of full co-operation with Euratom after we have left. ... The UK will continue to meet all its international obligations in respect of nuclear safeguards and non-proliferation.

A British House of Commons Library briefing paper on Euratom, published on 7 July 2017, explained that

Leaving Euratom has the potential to impact the UK's current nuclear operations, including fuel supply, waste management, cooperation with other nuclear states, and research. Industry has warned of a "cliff edge" exit that could cause "major disruption to business across the whole nuclear fuel cycle." The UK will need to take on a number of measures to leave Euratom smoothly and some are concerned that the timetable for achieving these measures is ambitious. ... The Queen's Speech [annual UK Government legislative program] contained a Nuclear Safeguards Bill to give the UK's Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) powers to take on the role and responsibilities of Euratom, required to meet international safeguards, and nuclear non-proliferation obligations.

A UK Government position paper Nuclear materials and safeguards issues issued on 13 July 2017 specifies that the government intends to implement the following measures to ensure continuity of its international obligations. The paper states that the United Kingdom will:

  • agree a Voluntary Offer Agreement with the IAEA that sets out the UK's primary safeguards arrangements in international law;
  • take responsibility for meeting the UK's safeguards obligations, as agreed with the IAEA;
  • in line with the specific circumstances of the UK and respecting the UK's current obligations, agree Nuclear Cooperation Agreements between the UK and key non-EU/Euratom States, including the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan - these agreements will underline the UK's commitment to upholding the safeguards obligations agreed with the IAEA;
  • work closely with the European Commission to ensure a smooth transition to its new arrangements, including the setup of the new safeguards regime; and
  • seek to ensure that the UK's new regime provides for continued close cooperation with the Euratom Community.

The UK Government had earlier explained they intend UK nuclear security regulator, the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) to take over from the independent  safeguards inspectors from Euratom, to 'self-police' the British nuclear industry against military misuse.

This is a highly contentious proposal. Although as a nuclear-weapon member of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty the United Kingdom does not have an obligation to place its nuclear activities under IAEA safeguards, right now all its civilian activities are covered by international safeguards, administered by Euratom. Oversight by a national regulator would not be an adequate substitute to Euratom safeguards. The government indicated its willingness to conclude a Voluntary Offer Agreement with the IAEA--the current one, INFCIRC/263/Add.1, relies on Euratom. To provide true continuity of international safeguards, however, the United Kingdom would have to provide the IAEA with additional resources that would allow the Agency to directly implement its safeguards at UK nuclear facilities that are currently under Euratom safeguards.