Brexit & Radioactive Waste

As Britain tumbles towards the hardest Brexit, the debate is dominated by what the fateful referendum could mean for British business, and jobs – but these aren’t the only weighty matters that we should be thinking about. For byzantine legal reasons, when we triggered Article 50 we didn’t just stick two fingers up at the European Union, we also signalled our intent to quit Euratom – the continent-wide agency that oversees our nuclear industry and materials. Today, thanks to a freedom of information request, Gizmodo UK can exclusively reveal details of some of the internal worries from Britain’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the government organisation tasked with getting rid of or making safe 17 dangerous former nuclear sites around the country. We’ve obtained a document that was collated on the 13th July last year – just a couple of weeks after the referendum – and it reads as though Brexit could make an already complicated task even trickier. The document we’ve seen runs through some of the biggest strategic challenges created by us leaving the EU – with the obvious unwritten implication that it is going to make the work of the agency and its subsidiaries harder. The NDA itself doesn’t get terribly hands on – instead, each nuclear site or project is managed by a separate limited company (so privately owned companies can get involved) – and the document rounds up some of the responses from these subsidiaries too, which helps paint a picture of the real implications.Perhaps unsurprisingly given how critical this technology could be for Britain and the rest of the world, the EU is fronting a lot of the research cash. For example, one project – DOPAS – The Full-Scale Demonstration of Plugs and Seals, studied how to, umm, plug and seal radioactive waste. In this case Europe paid €8,700,000 – half the cost of doing it. It has also recently paid for a number of other similar projects. The document goes on to reveal that RWM is planning to seek European cash for future projects with similarly impenetrable acronyms. The best one is Europe putting an expected contribution of €3-4m into “DISCO” – a project studying the Dissolution of Spent Fuel in Waste Containers. Though it isn’t explicitly spelled out in the document, the implication is obvious: If our relationship with Europe is currently up in the air – so is the ability to pay for these important research projects. Perhaps the biggest danger though – reading between the lines – is the risks associated with Britain becoming more hostile to immigration. “UK universities have a multinational community”, the document explains, “UK universities have been very successful in attracting the best talent (students and academic staff) from across the world, which in turn leads additional funding, better teaching and higher quality research. An inability to attract non-UK EU nationals would have a negative impact on UK universities and indirectly on the NDA estate R&D programme.” Ultimately then, it appears that certainly on our interpretation, that Brexit is going to create a megacurie of headaches when it comes to getting rid of radioactive waste. We’ve reached out to all of the organisations mentioned to ask if the document still reflects their current thinking on Brexit and will update this post if they respond. But what’s also clear is that this is that it makes a wider point too about the almost unfathomable complexity of Brexit. The nuclear industry is still a relatively small part of British life – and this document is a good example of how the high-level decision made by politicians in Westminster to pursue a hard Brexit can have mushrooming consequences.


Gizmodo 19th April 2017

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