Rupert Cowen, a senior nuclear energy lawyer with Prospect Law, told British MPs Tuesday that an exit from the EU, if it includes leaving the Euratom treaty, could legally force a shutdown of British nuclear power stations. The UK government has said it will exit the Euratom treaty when article 50 is triggered to leave the EU. The treaty outlines cooperation and research in nuclear power, as well as international safety standards.

According to Cowen:

“Unlike other arrangements, if we don’t get this right, business stops. There will be no trade. If we can’t arrive at safeguards and other principles that allow compliance to be demonstrated, no nuclear trade will be able to continue.”

The chair of the Commons business, energy and industrial strategy select committee asked Cowen if this would mean reactors could actually be forced to turned off, to which he replied: “Ultimately, when their fuels runs out, yes.”

He added that there was no legal obligation for the UK to leave the Euratom treaty as part of Brexit, in his view. “It’s a political issue, not a legal issue,” he said.

Dame Sue Ion, chair of the Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board, told the energy committee:

“There is a plethora of international agreements that would have to be struck that almost mirror those in place with Euratom, before we moved not just material but intellectual property, services, anything in the nuclear sector. We would be crippled without other things in place.”

She also added that the Euratom treaty allows for free movement of the industry’s “best intellectual talent.”

Spokespeople for the government have described withdrawal from the treaty as a “regrettable necessity” upon triggering article 50. Energy minister Jesse Norman said the government saw alternatives to managing these issues outside of the Euratom treaty.

“We take this extremely seriously and are devoting serious resources [to the issue],” he said on Tuesday.

Chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, Tom Greatrex explained:

“What we’re collectively warning about is the potential for there to be a very hard two-year period during which there are lots of other things the government has to deal with, that could leave it in a position where some of these things aren’t in place.”

He also brought up the possibility of associate membership in the Euratom treaty.

The Office for Nuclear Regulation asserted that there would upsides to pulling out of the treaty, with ONR executive David Senior saying “If we relinquish Euratom there would be reduced burden from not having to comply with directives.”

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