The election result finally allowed questions to be asked about Theresa May’s judgement. The list of questions is long. For Tory MPs it includes ‘Why did she call an unnecessary election?’, although this isn’t a question that concerns us Labour supporters too much. From a different perspective ‘Why did she trigger Article 50 when she wasn’t ready to start negotiations?’ is another serious question that should be asked of her judgement. These are only two of the very long list of fundamental questions that Theresa May should answer.
There is a further very specific area of questioning that I want to focus on that is now being asked in Parliament – ‘Why did Theresa May make a last-minute decision to leave the Euratom Treaty at the same time as triggering the Article 50 process for leaving the EU?’. We should also ask ‘Why isn’t she talking to our Euratom partners yet about staying in the Treaty?’.
The response seems to be down to another of May’s entirely unforced errors, the absolute exclusion of the role of the ECJ in anything at any time led to a scramble to start the exit process in the Euratom Treaty. The fact that there has been no action taken against the UK in the ECJ in relation to Euratom appears either to have been ignored, for dangerous political fundamentalist reasons, or there was an equally dangerous lack of curiosity about this fact at the time.
To continue the questioning theme ‘what is Euratom and why should we be worried?’. The Euratom Treaty is a separate treaty that was established in 1957 to facilitate civil nuclear power and research. All civil nuclear safeguarding in the EU, ownership of fissile materials, nuclear waste management and movement of medical isotopes is done through Euratom, as is world leading research into nuclear fusion. For obvious reasons all these activities are highly regulated and the regulation is managed through Euratom.
In less than 2 years’ time the UK needs to reach an agreement with the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and with Euratom on the transfer of ownership and responsibility for all fissile materials and other obligations to a UK regulatory body and this body must and must replicate a series of nuclear cooperation agreements with other countries, currently done under the Euratom umbrella, to enable movement of nuclear related goods, services, information and people.
The existing body that would be expected to pick up the safeguarding is the Office of Nuclear Regulation. Unfortunately, the ONR is facing the same issues that the rest of our public sector is facing, the challenges of austerity. In addition, they face another significant challenge – the people who have the qualifications and experience to do this work are retiring and there aren’t enough people available with the necessary skills ready to take on these roles.
Oh, the irony – we may have to rely on EU citizens to fill the jobs we need to create because the UK government decided a referendum vote meant the British people don’t want EU immigrants.
Another aspect of Euratom’s work that has been covered in recent days is the impact on isotopes that are used in our NHS. Theresa May and others have been saying that these aren’t covered by Euratom, so stop worrying. This shows a worrying lack of knowledge or a deeply concerning willingness not to be honest about the situation we’re in. It is true that isotopes aren’t regarded as fissile materials under Euratom but we import our isotopes from the Netherlands, Belgium and France and isotopes are most definitely covered by the Euratom governance of the movement of nuclear materials.
Finally, there is an issue close to my heart – the UK’s involvement in nuclear fusion research. Achieving fusion power generation would provide us with a safe, low carbon energy source from easily available and abundant components. However, delivering this is a large-scale project that requires international collaboration over many years. Our major contribution to Europe’s fusion energy project (ITER) is through the Joint European Torus (JET), based in Culham just outside Oxford. Hundreds of world class nuclear scientists are working there on developing ground breaking research in fusion and areas such as specialist materials and remote handling (robotics). Funding through Euratom enables the UK to host this extraordinary facility.
The importance of ensuring we can keep the lights on and diagnose and treat people with life threatening illnesses are sufficient grounds for staying in Euratom. Staying in for fusion research is also ensuring we will continue to be involved in a programme that could transform the world’s energy supply.
It is time the government rethinks its hasty early decisions. The government should now be talking to our partners in Euratom about staying in the Treaty.
Clare Moody is Labour MEP for the South West and Gibraltar