Brexit and Atomic Energy: More Confusion being spread about

As the first country in the world to design, build, and connect a nuclear reactor to a public electricity supply (at Calder Hall, Cumbria in 1956), the British public might well expect that Britain would be well-equipped with regulatory systems for operational safety in the intervening 61 years. And the public is right.

In the world, in these 61 years, there have been five serious accidents involving damage to the nuclear core containing the enriched uranium rods. These are Jaslovske Bohunice (Czechoslovakia 1976),Three Mile Island (USA 1978), Chernobyl (Soviet Union, now the Ukraine 1986), and two in Japan (1999 and 2011). The total deaths at these 5 electricity generating plants were 52: 46 at Chernobyl[1], 2 at Fukushima[2], 2 at Iberaki (Japan 1999) and 2 at Jaslovske Bohunice, Czechoslovakia (1976). Besides these operating disasters there have been 21 publicly reported accidents in nuclear plant not connected to the electricity power supply at the time, when a total of 8 deaths were incurred. The sole British accident (in 1957) at the Windscale plant in Cumbria, making plutonium for the British atom bomb project, released significant Iodine131, but the fire was contained and there were no deaths.

Euratom comes on the Brexit Scene

Euratom was established (in 1957) as one of the three founding pillars of the European Communities[3]. Its objectives are defined in Article 1 as “raising the standard of living in the Member States and the development of relations with other countries . . . for the speedy establishment and growth of nuclear industries[4].

One of its particular duties within these broad objectives was to “ensure by appropriate supervision that nuclear materials are not diverted to purposes other than those for which they are intended” and to “establish with other countries and international organisations such relations as will foster the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.”

Euratom has been of insignificant importance to Britain in our nuclear power programmes, which date from the establishment of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) at Harwell Oxfordshire in 1946. When the UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, it appears that, completely unnoticed by Parliament and public, it joined Euratom[5] as well.

Now some British officials warn of a 7-year difficulty of replacing unspecified Euratom Agreements [reports Financial Times 26/6/17]. In fact Euratom performs no irreplaceable or necessary regulatory functions for Britain at all. The most recent EC Regulation 302/2005 updates Regulation 3327/76 which was (and is) irrelevant to Britain after we joined in 1973.

Britain’s Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR)

This has gathered together a number of bodies into one powerful regulatory body reporting to Parliament under Schedule 7 of the Energy Act 2013. It oversees military as well as civil installations from a safety point of view, so valuable cross-fertilisation between civil and military uses can be achieved. This gives it a distinct advantage over Euratom, and parallels the functions of the Nuclear Regulatory Board (NRB) in the USA and the Nuclear Safety Commission (NSC) in Canada, both of whose engagement with nuclear energy, like Britain’s, predate Euratom by 10 years at least. Furthermore, like Britain’s ONR, the US and Canadian offices license new reactor designs and extensions of licence[6].

Nuclear Energy: The International Dimension

This is chiefly represented by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquartered in Vienna, founded in 1957 (like Euratom) and endowed with its own facilities. Its objectives are:

  1. Promoting best safety standards;
  2. Promoting international cooperation on all nuclear matters;
  3. Preventing nuclear weapons and materials proliferation.

In pursuit of these objectives, IAEA maintains a huge range of scientific and technical publications, tri-monthly bulletins (now in their 58th year), simulates radiological emergencies in different countries, inspects safety standards and procedures across all of its 82 member states. In February 2016, an IAEA mission to Britain concluded that UK “security and regulatory regime is robust and effective in efficiently supporting secure outcomes” to any incident.


  1. Euratom is of no use to Britain: it wastes the ONR’s time on pointless inspections and attendance at committee meetings. Some scientific staff love going to meetings; it makes them feel important.
  2. It is doubtful if Euratom is of much use to the EU states either, given the huge range of activities and information now generated by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
  3. The situation with nuclear standards is similar to the broader issue of standards in general. The International Standards Organisation (ISO) headquartered in Geneva, which applies in 162 countries of the world, has made the EU’s CEN (Comité Européen de Normalisation) rather parochial and now almost entirely derivative from ISO. The Government’s Bill to formally leave Euratom should therefore be endorsed by all, and customers and suppliers of materials alike be informed that any certifications needed will henceforth be supplied by the UK Office of Nuclear Regulation.
  4. Any paperwork problems in the transitional period around the UK leaving date (March 29th 2019) should be seen by officials as something to be got over in a few months, not seven years and not to be complained about. British officials hitherto concerned with Euratom should be redeployed on the UK IAEA relationship or elsewhere.

End Notes

[1] Direct deaths in the explosion were 31. Fifteen died later from Iodine131 release which caused thyroid cancer.

[2] An enormous earthquake on the seabed of 9.0 on the Richter scale caused gigantic waves which hit about 15 miles of Japanese coast including the 6 Fukushima reactors, 5 of which were operating.

[3] The Euratom Treaty (1957) established the European Atomic Energy Community. “Euratom” is shorthand for this 4 word phrase. The other pillars are the Economic Community (1957) and the Coal and Steel Community (1951).

[4] Doubtless the start-up in 1956, in Britain, of the world’s first nuclear reactor for commercial purpose would have influenced this phrasing.

[5] Euratom explicitly does not apply to the military uses of atomic energy and there may be in existence secret undertakings to limit its involvement with British (and French) civil nuclear power.

[6] Canadian applications for nuclear power stations are in public.

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