… and what about the tokamak?

 

photo by Barbara Peluzo

 

You can be sure the knives are out when the former chief of staff for the Minister for Brexit briefs against the Prime Minister.

James Chapman said David Davis had been “hamstrung” in the Brexit negotiations by Theresa May’s intransigence and that unless she showed more flexibility she would find it difficult to get Brexit through Parliament (BBC news, 30 June).

What had hamstrung Mr Davis, he said, was the Prime Minister’s hostility to the European Court of Justice. This court has featured several times in the fox blogs and will continue to do so unless Mrs May undergoes a Damascene conversion. It oversees transactions between European member states. It will therefore have a role to play as Britain withdraws from the EU. If we want to hang on to bits of the EU because the bottom will fall out of Britain if we don’t, it will go on having a role to play. This is simply a fact.

Mr Davis has tried to deal with his dilemma by trailing the idea of a new international court, consisting of British and European judges, to replace the ECJ. It will be subject to the same objections as the ECJ, however; it will not be a sovereign British court. It will be a fudge and an obvious one, it will be costly to set up and there seems no reason why the EU should accept it. But it will save the Prime Minister’s face. This is what Brexit has done to British politics.

It appears, meanwhile, that Mrs May will let Britain fall apart at the seams rather than concede ground on her “red line.”

A seam that particularly concerns Mr Chapman is Euratom. It should concern us all.

Euratom’s full name is the European Atomic Energy Community, and it was signed into existence on the same day in 1957 as the European Economic Community, from which it was legally separate. The reason for the separation was so that any potential opposition to atomic energy in the Community’s populations should not turn into opposition towards the Community itself. It is still separate, but nearly all its members are EU states.

Euratom’s purpose, explains Clare Moody, MEP (Guardian, 1 Feb.), was “to create a single market for … knowledge and resources in the peaceful pursuit of nuclear energy.” The European’s Commission’s webpage, (https://ec.europa.eu>EuropeanCommission>Horizon2020) says its aims are “to pursue nuclear research and training activities with an emphasis on continually improving nuclear safety, security and radiation protection, and notably to contribute to the long-term decarbonisation  of the energy system in a safe, efficient and secure way.”

What is wrong with that? Even if you think nuclear power is an invention of the Devil, a viewpoint with which I sympathise, we are stuck with its lethal waste products, and the more protection we have against them the better. One would think.

Theresa May doesn’t think so. The treaty with Euratom will lapse when the other treaties lapse, on our exit from the EU, and she will make no attempt to keep Britain in.

Why not? The clue is in Clare Moody’s phrase, “a single market for nuclear knowledge and resources.” Single market? Absolutely not. It will let immigrants into the country. They happen to be, as James Chapman points out, scientists earning six-figure salaries who pay a lot of tax, but that makes no difference. Not only will they be boosting the immigration  total, but the ECJ will  be involved in seeing that we treat them properly. That’s the clincher.

Safety is not the only thing that Euratom concerns itself with, although it accounts for the first two of its main priorities. Notably, it inspects all civilian nuclear facilities. It regulates the transport and exchange of nuclear materials. It is, Clare Moody states, the legal owner of all nuclear material, and is the legal purchaser, certifier and guarantor of any nuclear materials and technologies the UK purchases.

“This means,” she says, “that 21% of the UK’s electricity generation is based on our membership of Euratom.”

Does that mean that leaving Euratom will threaten our electricity supplies (which are not robust in any case)? The Commons cross-party Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee thinks so. Its chairman, Iain Wright, said the continued operations of the UK’s nuclear industry were “at risk.” The Committee recommended delaying departure from Euratom until alternative arrangements were in place, to minimise “disruptions to trade and threats to power supplies” (Guardian 2 May).

Government ministers assured the Committee that guaranteeing the UK’s supplies of nuclear fuel was a “high priority”, but gave no indication of how they propose to guarantee them.

The Committee was also concerned that Brexit might result in the removal of key standards, that the UK could become a dumping ground for energy-inefficient products, and that it might end up in the position of a “rule-taker” – unable to influence rules and standards it has to comply with. So much for sovereignty.

Euratom supports and regulates the medical applications of radiation, including the secure supply of radio-isotopes (priority no. 4 in the European Commission’s list). The Government has not announced what, when we leave the regulatory framework, it intends to do about this, either.

And then there’s JET (Joint European Torus). JET lives at Culham in the Oxfordshire countryside and, without disturbing the cows, generates temperatures exceeding those in the centre of the sun. It is a tokamak (the word is Russian and refers to its shape), looks like a cross between a ring doughnut and the spaceship Discovery One and is an experimental fusion reactor. It is a project of Euratom.

JET and the more advanced ITER, in France, for which it carries out testing, have been in development for a long time and not yet achieved nuclear fusion that yields usable amounts of energy. However, if this goal can be attained it should produce abundant electricity without radioactive waste. That is a prize worth going for. Nuclear fusion, which fuses together light atoms, in contrast to fission, which splits heavy ones, might be the energy of the future; it is already part of the science of the future. JET receives generous EU funding, too: 56 million euros per year. Do we really want to bail out of it, with all its opportunities for training new scientists, its challenges, and the benefits that will come from contribution? Theresa May does, if being under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice is the price for staying in.

There are other costs associated with leaving Euratom. One is a matter of hard cash: we will have to pay for all those nuclear materials and bits of hardware that are located in the UK and which at present we do not own, before they are transferred to us. The bill will be included in the “divorce settlement” which has to be negotiated. (Someone will have to explain to the Daily Mail why we have to pay for this stuff and aren’t being given it.) We will have to create new regulatory structures and a mechanism for reporting to the UN through the International Atomic Energy Agency, which at the moment the EU performs for us. We will have to create nuclear transport arrangements.

There will be the cost of setting up the new international court to replace the ECJ, if it happens, although that will presumably be shared between the multitude of other competences over which the ECJ has jurisdiction. (Or will it?  Will there be one court for Euratom and another for fisheries, a third for dealing with the European Search Warrant and a fourth for citizens’ rights..? Nothing is beyond the insanity of Brexit.)

And this is without calculating the EU funding we will lose for research and development, and the economic effects of losing what has been described as a trillion-pound market.

“It’s madness,” said Vince Cable. “It’s bonkers,” said the former director at Culham, Dr Steven Cowley. No matter. Theresa May holds to her course.

Behind everything lurks a darker question which no-one wants to ask. Do we trust our government with matters of safety, of regulation, of transparency to public scrutiny? I would be surprised if, after the events of the past month, one person in a hundred could be found who said “Yes.”

Inept, arrogant, intent on cost-cutting, ideologically opposed to regulation, pathologically secretive, this government has been revealed as incapable of discharging its responsibility to its citizens and incapable also of acknowledging its defects. We are expected to trust it to take on the oversight and regulation of an industry which requires the highest possible safety standards and which, privatised as far as it can be by past administrations, has often failed to meet those standards and whose failings have been routinely covered up. And this while it is attending to the thousand and one other things mandated by its pointless Brexit.

Are there any takers?