Of all the international regulatory challenges created by the UK’s impending departure from the EU, the atomic-energy industry may best encapsulate the decision’s bottom-line effect: More bureaucracy and costs for a country that has long fought to curb both within the EU.
Untwining the UK from decades of centralised European supervision of nuclear material for civilian use mirrors the broader Brexit process.
Each involves abandoning treaty-bound organisations, re-establishing links on less integrated terms and, in the meantime, creating uncertainty for everybody from executives to researchers.
The UK is a leading European nuclear country, with 15 reactors accounting for about a fifth of domestic electricity production. The British atomic-energy industry employs more than 65,000 people and features companies ranging from plant operator EDF Energy and developer Horizon Nuclear Power — a unit of Hitachi — to fuel producer Westinghouse Electric and uranium enricher Urenco.
“Brexit is a complete gamechanger for the nuclear industry in Britain, altering the regulatory environment, creating major complexity and leading the way to higher costs for businesses, the state and ultimately the British taxpayer,” said Simone Tagliapietra, a research fellow on energy at the Bruegel think-tank in Brussels. “It’s a huge, self-inflicted problem.”
The EU’s nuclear framework is a microcosm of the Brexit hurdles because, like Europe’s single market and free-trade deals, it offers the UK benefits that the British government is keen to retain after the country withdraws from the 28-nation bloc in March 2019. Yet the act of leaving makes preserving those advantages difficult or even impossible.
While the EU’s national governments retain many of the policy powers associated with nuclear energy, the Euratom treaty creates a federal structure for some key elements. The centralised features include non-proliferation inspections, supply agreements with non-EU countries and research funding. The government of UK prime minister Theresa May also announced its intention to quit Euratom.
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