Analysis: Brexit and Wylfa B’s nuclear fuel

Wylfa Power Station. Picture: Andrew Woodvine (CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

When Theresa May triggered Article 50 a couple of months ago, she also signalled her intention that the UK leave the obscure EURATOM treaty.

The treaty covers nuclear power, an issue which neither the Remain nor Leave camps even mentioned during the referendum campaign.

How this decision will affect plans for a new nuclear power station at Wylfa on Ynys Môn does not appear to have been noticed in Wales at all.

But what is interesting is that EURATOM is central in the UK’s trade in nuclear materials. The nuclear fuel used in our power stations is actually owned by EURATOM and its safe handling and storage is overseen by that organisation.

When May took over as PM, the core of her Government’s energy strategy was the commitment to building new nuclear power stations, starting with Hinkley Point C in Somerset, just 12 miles from the South Wales coast across the Bristol Channel.

It should be remembered that she called in the decision on that project when she took over from David Cameron, only to go ahead with it last Autumn, so it is worth asking what is going on.

As World Nuclear News (WNN), the mouthpiece of the nuclear power industry reported at the time, “The multi-billion-pound question is to what extent UK participation in EURATOM should continue post-Brexit, and what happens if it doesn’t.”

What most worried WNN was that the two-year deadline for renegotiating the EURATOM treaty could not be met as the UK has very little experience of negotiating nuclear agreements.

It took four years of negotiations in the 1990s to upgrade the EURATOM-US co-operation agreement when it was due to lapse.

Since then EDF has been pouring massive amounts money and workers into the building of Hinkley C, seemingly unconcerned about the possibility that the UK might leave EURATOM.

When asked about this recently, they said: “We are encouraged by the UK Government’s strong commitment to maintaining the successful and mutually beneficial civil co-operation between the European Union and the UK.

“EDF Energy believes that alternative or transitional arrangements need to be put in place to ensure continuity for the UK nuclear industry if the UK leaves EURATOM.”

It is worth noting the word “if” as it seems bizarre that they should have been encouraged to go ahead with hundreds of million pounds of investment in building Hinkley C, if they think it likely that the UK will leave EURATOM.

So, there we are then – they don’t think that they have a problem, either because the UK will miraculously renegotiate a highly complex set of regulations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) within the two-year deadline, somehow arrange an extension of that deadline or perhaps not leave EURATOM after all.

Tim Richards

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