The exit would deal a heavy blow to multibillion-dollar nuclear-fusion experiments
Scientists are shocked and angry at the UK government’s sudden confirmation on January 26 that it wants to pull out of the European Union’s nuclear agency Euratom, as part of its arrangements for Brexit.
Depending upon whether and how the UK negotiates a way back in to the organization, the move could endanger British participation in the world’s largest fusion experiment, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in Cadarache, France. It could also curtail operations at the Joint European Torus (JET), a nuclear-fusion facility based in Culham, UK. The facility is a half-sized version of ITER and acts as a test-bed for it; it currently receives around €56 million ($60 million) annually from Euratom.
The Culham Centre’s current director, Ian Chapman, has told Nature that — after meeting with government officials — he is sure that the UK has no intention of drawing back from nuclear research and development or civil nuclear programmes. “There’s no indication that this means we’re stopping our nuclear program, far from it,” says Chapman, who is also chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Agency.
The UK will have to change how it participates in these programs, however. “There’s still a commitment from the government to think about how we can put in place arrangements to continue running JET, and to continue participating in the ITER program,” Chapman says.
But on 26 January, confirmation that it intended to leave Euratom appeared in notes appended to a short Parliamentary bill. That legislation is meant to allow the UK’s Prime Minister to trigger ‘Article 50’, the formal notification of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
Alexandrine Kántor, a senior electrical designer at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, stated on Twitter that it was the first she’d heard of it. “Always nice to know you might lose your job via the newspapers, cause the gov’ didn’t think it necessary to tell your CEO,” she wrote.
The UK could become a Euratom “third country”, like the United States — which has a cooperation agreement that allows it to participate in some programs. That status would not automatically make the UK a member of ITER, however. And although Euratom is technically able to pay third countries, it would be unlikely to continue funding JET. The UK government has not said whether it would then pick up the bill for the facility.
Alternatively, the UK could become an “associate country” of Euratom — like Switzerland, which gained this status in 2014 and participates in ITER. Under this arrangement, Euratom would be more likely to continue funding JET.
The UK’s Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) has called on the UK government to agree to transitional arrangements, which would see the UK remain part of Euratom until it had time to renegotiate international agreements which are currently all managed through the organisation.
The complex process of leaving Euratom ought to be done in a careful and deliberate manner, Chapman says, even if it takes longer than the two years prescribed for Brexit in Article 50. But the UK’s ‘Brexit ministry’ — the Department for Exiting the European Union — says that the 2-year time-limit applies to leaving Euratom as well.
Read more at UK’s Brexit Plans Call for Leaving EU Nuclear Agency