The plan for nuclear safeguarding post Brexatom

Posted in Energy

The Nuclear Safeguards Bill 2017-19 was introduced in Parliament on 11 October 2017*, setting out the Government’s proposals for introducing a UK specific safeguarding regime following the UK’s exit from the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom).

Or at least, the proposals for giving the job to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

Nuclear safeguarding is aimed at ensuring that nuclear material intended for non-military uses is where it should be and is not appropriated for other uses, in pursuance of international obligations under the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Demonstrating to the international community that appropriate safeguarding arrangements are in place is an essential part of international nuclear commerce, and we have previously commented on the implications of Brexatom (as exit from Euratom is increasingly known) and the importance of ensuring that a vacuum is not left in its place (including, but not only, in relation to nuclear safeguarding).

The Nuclear Safeguards Bill amends the definition of nuclear safeguarding (which is already one of the five purposes of the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR)) to replace references to Euratom with the UK’s own regulations for nuclear safeguarding and “relevant international agreements”.

The Bill then gives powers to the Secretary of State to put in place regulations that provide the details, including defining the relevant international agreements.

We will therefore need to wait further for draft regulations from BEIS for any practical details.

The relevant international agreements that the UK will need to put in place with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and other nuclear States (to replace existing arrangements the UK has through membership of Euratom) also remain to be agreed. The accompanying Memorandum concerning the Delegated Powers indicates that the Government is in negotiations to replace these agreements and confirms the intention to enter into arrangements with the IAEA that follow the same principles as the existing regime.  However, nuclear States are likely to require details of the UK’s new safeguarding regime before agreeing new nuclear cooperation agreements with the UK. We would therefore expect the draft regulations to follow soon, particularly given the Government’s commitment to consult fully on the draft regulations.

The Nuclear Safeguards Bill does confirm that, as expected, the ONR will play a significant role in a UK specific regime, taking over the regulatory functions previously performed by Euratom. The Memorandum concerning Delegated Powers notes that, given its existing roles and responsibilities, the “ONR has the capability and knowledge base in relation to the UK’s safeguarding arrangements” and is therefore “well positioned to take on new operational and enforcement functions for nuclear safeguards”. Whilst the capability and knowledge base of the ONR inspectors cannot be doubted, the ONR has already indicated that it is facing a skills shortage with a combination of an ageing workforce, the nuclear new build programme increasing demand on its time and, of course, the recruitment challenges of Brexit; there will no doubt be concern that the ONR will be able to take on these additional responsibilities without adversely impacting other functions, in particular the ONR’s ability to support the nuclear new build programme.

So, in summary, we have a statement of intent but few details …….watch this space.

* The Bill was published alongside Explanatory Notes and a Memorandum concerning the Delegated Powers in the Nuclear Safeguards Bill for the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, and quickly followed on 13 October 2017 by a House of Commons Briefing Paper.

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