Brexit department warns EU counterparts it will ‘return waste to its country of origin’ if an agreement on nuclear cooperation cannot be reached
The Sellafield plant in Cumbria has been reprocessing spent nuclear field from Europe since the 70s. Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA
Daniel Boffey in Brussels-Wednesday 19 July 2017
Britain has warned the EU that it could return boatloads of radioactive waste back to the continent if the Brexit talks fail to deliver an agreement on nuclear regulation.
In what is being taken in Brussels as a thinly veiled threat, a paper setting out the UK position for the negotiations stresses the right “to return radioactive waste … to its country of origin” should negotiations collapse.
The UK paper, detailing the British government’s hopes for future cooperation once it leaves the Euratom treaty, at the same time as leaving the EU, further stresses the “strong mutual interest in ensuring close cooperation in the future”.
Britain currently has a 126-tonne stockpile of radioactive materials originating from EU countries such as Germany, Italy and Sweden.
The state-owned Sellafield plant in Cumbria has been reprocessing spent nuclear field from across Europe since the 1970s, producing reusable uranium, plutonium and radioactive waste. Almost a fifth of the UK’s stockpile of civilian plutonium at Sellafield originates from overseas.
Nuclear experts who have advised the British government told the Financial Times that the Department for Exiting the European Union’s none-too-coded warning over the future ownership of radioactive waste might just encourage a more flexible approach from the Europeans over the issue.
“It might just be a reminder that a boatload of plutonium could end up at a harbour in Antwerp unless an arrangement is made,” one nuclear expert told the FT.
Britain has signalled that while it is leaving the Euraotom treaty, of which it has been a member since 1957, it wants to continue to cooperate on nuclear regulation after the UK leaves the union in March 2019. The treaty regulates the civilian use of atomic technology and critics of the government’s position fear there is a threat of disruption to UK supplies of nuclear reactor parts, fuel and medical isotopes vital for the treatment of cancer if a new agreement outside membership of the EU is not reached.
Around 500,000 scans are performed in the UK every year using imported radioisotopes. In May the House of Commons energy select committee urged the UK to postpone leaving Euratom. It claimed that power supplies could be threatened if a new regulator was not ready.
The EU insist, however, that such cooperation on nuclear regulation would require the UK to recognise the jurisdiction of the European court of justice, which is a red line for Theresa May.
EU diplomats told the FT that they had noted the veiled threat on nuclear waste. One reportedly joked that they would have “the coastguard ready”.
The UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy told the paper, however, that negotiations would focus on the “legal ownership not physical location” of nuclear materials. What happens to materials once ownership has been settled “will be a matter for the owner and the UK to agree on commercial terms,” the Whitehall department added.