Atomic Britain

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John Grantchester on ensuring the government delivers its nuclear safeguarding guarantees, post-Brexit

Today, the House of Lords turns its energy to the Nuclear Safeguards Bill. When the Prime Minister triggered Article 50, she also gave notice of the government’s plan to take the UK out of EURATOM – the European Atomic Energy Community. A decision that will have huge ramifications for nuclear research and development, knowledge transfer, the trade and transport of nuclear material and – crucially – safeguards.

Nuclear safeguarding is distinct from safety or security. This is the system of inspection, reporting and verification that nation-states use to show the international community that civil nuclear material is not being diverted into weapons or military programmes. Such safeguards are vital to the UK’s obligations as a responsible nuclear state. Without a working safeguarding regime, our nuclear industry would grind to a halt.

Safeguarding in the UK is currently implemented by EURATOM. Outside of the treaty, the UK will have to generate its own domestic regime if we are to meet our international obligations and keep the industry running. The new Bill provides for such a regime – to be delivered by the Office of Nuclear Responsibility (ONR). The government aims to negotiate a ‘close association’ with EURATOM – to allow safeguarding arrangements to continue where possible. But we also need a robust domestic regime ready to go in case of a failure to negotiate EURATOM access.

Labour is clear that the best way to maintain nuclear safeguards would be continued membership of EURATOM or to have the closest possible equivalent arrangements. The government was reckless to give up so quickly on EURATOM. But in recognising the need for a fall back option, we will press Ministers to shed more light on how the domestic regime will operate.

Our key concerns include yet another attempt from Ministers to embark on an Executive power-grab, and we will table amendments to restrict the Henry VIII laws they are trying to bestow upon themselves. And we will also seek proper parliamentary scrutiny of secondary legislation.

On the resourcing of the ONR, a gap exists between what the government is promising and what may be deliverable. As a member of EURATOM, the UK has not had to build up resilience and expertise in safeguarding. Ministers say they want no drop in standards or level of inspections but reflecting concerns from the ONR itself we will looking for much firmer guarantees.

Finally, the government have said it has a wider aim to ensure ‘certainty and clarity’ to industry. We have the Bill but the wider picture remains unstable. The legislation is narrow in scope, and just one small – although vital – piece of the equipment needed to give clarity to our nuclear industry. We will be pushing Ministers to answer those bigger questions, including on R&D and the secure supply of medical isotopes – issues that at present, they are trying to avoid.

Lord John Grantchester is Shadow Energy Minister in the House of Lords

Published 7th February 2018

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