Letter sent to The Guardian:
One of the more obscure new bills unveiled in the Queen’s speech is one covering “nuclear safeguards” as part of repatriation of legislation post Brexit.
When your energy correspondent reported earlier on the implications of the UK leaving Euratom, (“UK exit from EU atomic treaty under Brexit 'will delay power stations,' Guardian, 27 January; https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/jan/27/uk-exit-eu-atomic-treaty-brexit-euratom-hinkley-point-c) an anonymous government spokeswoman was quoted as asserting that the UK wanted to see a continuity of cooperation and standards. “We remain absolutely committed to the highest standards of nuclear safety, safeguards and support for the industry. Our aim is clear – we want to maintain our mutually successful civil nuclear cooperation with the EU.”
The government misleadingly describes the main benefits of the Bill as being to ensure that the UK continues to meet our international obligations for nuclear safeguards, as applies to civil nuclear material through the International Atomic Energy Agency. (www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/620838/Queens_speech_2017_background_notes.pdf)
Currently international inspection of UK nuclear plants and nuclear explosive materials to ensure the UK pledge not to divert these plants or materials to military misuse is verified, by the EU’s Euratom agency on behalf of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, under a treaty signed in September 1978 between the UK, Euratom and the IAEA.
As our nuclear regulator, the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) puts it “The UK voluntary offer safeguards agreement with the IAEA and Euratom came into force in 1978 and specifies the UKs acceptance of the application of IAEA safeguards on all source or special fissionable material in facilities or parts thereof within the United Kingdom, subject to exclusions for national security reasons only.” .(http://www.onr.org.uk/safeguards/iaeauk.htm)
The agreement is voluntary in the sense it is entered into by the UK to demonstrate to non-nuclear weapons states that the UK , as a nuclear WMD state, is prepared to suffer an equivalent disruption – dubbed “equlity of misery” - of its commercial nuclear plants by safeguards applications
But to demonstrate clearly the UK safeguards agreement is not prohibitive of internal proliferation, under article 14 of the 1978 agreement, the UK has withdrawn nuclear materials from peaceful use commitments “for national security reasons” at least 650 times since 1978, according to figures released by the Office for Nuclear Regulation
In renegotiating the new treaty, the UK should exclude this permissive withdrawal article, that allows the UK to militiarise its civil nuclear operations with impunity, while excoriating other states to be bound by their own non diversion international treaty commitments.
It is now time energy and foreign ministers and their advisors turn their attention to what they are going to do to ensure nuclear safeguards continuity in the UK post Brexit. But to give the new oversight role to our national nuclear regulator (ONR), as the bill proposes, will surely be unacceptable to other nations, as it would de facto be self-regulation.
The UK must surely avoid becoming a nuclear rogue state by default.