Thursday, 17 May 2018

UK nuclear "safeguards"are a dangerously misleading mirage

Letter sent to The Guardian:
Your Brexit correspondent misses the main issue arising from the UK nuclear regulator’s report leaked to Sky News (“UK missing deadlines for post-Brexit nuclear safeguards, leak shows,” 17 May;

On July 13 last year, the UK Government position paper on "Nuclear materials and safeguards issues,"   included the key proposal that the UK will: "take responsibility for meeting the UK’s safeguards obligations, as agree with IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency)."
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Brexit secretary David Davis commented on the future relations with Euratom in an interview with BBC asserting an "arbitration arrangement" would have to be agreed. ("Brexit: UK could be 'associate' of EU nuclear body," BBC on line, 13 July 2017

Currently “ safeguards” are applied in the UK under a ‘voluntary ‘trilateral treaty between  the UK, Euratom and the IAEA. It comprises 36 pages in total, opening with the key element in the treaty stating in A r t i c l e 1(a) “The United Kingdom shall accept the application of safeguards, in accordance with the terms of this Agreement, on all source or special fissionable material in facilities or parts thereof within the United Kingdom, subject to exclusions for national security reasons only (my emphasis)

The exclusion opt out is explained at  Article 14 which reads in part: “If the United Kingdom intends to make any withdrawals of nuclear material from the scope of this Agreement for national security reasons …. it shall give the Community (ie Euratom) and the Agency (IAEA) advance notice of such withdrawal…”

The national nuclear regulator, the office for nuclear regulation (ONR), which is charged with constructing a national safeguards system, actually publishes on its web site details of withdrawal from safeguards. ()

We know from Parliamentary answers and the ONR that in the 40 years since the Trilateral treaty came into force in September 1978, the withdrawal clause 14 has been activated over 600 times. Just imagine if Iran or North Korea were to do that!

The ONR has been given unprecedented responsibility for policing a diplomatically contentious new arrangement, which will increase suspicion among member states of the 1968 nuclear nonproliferation treaty ( for which the UK , as a co-drafter of the treaty text, is one of three depositary states) – which ministers pray-in-aid whenever they discuss the rationale for a UK nuclear safeguards system.

However, ministers routinely cherry-pick those parts of the NPT that suite their purposes: but the NPT is an integrated diplomatic agreement, with its articles all relevant and related. Cherry-picking is both diplomatically unwise, as it normalises abrogation for other signatory nations, and undermines the very treaty for which the UK is supposed to act as a protective depositary state!

Nuclear safeguards in the UK are a complete misleading  mirage.

This diplomatic dimension has been totally overlooked by the ONR, as I explained in a memorandum submitted to Parliament last November, and utterly ignored by subsequent  ministerial evidence Parliament: the consequences further down the road will be predictably dire.

The independent ONR could ensure this is avoided by removing any opt-out clause to ensure no legal diversion on nuclear materials or facilities  can take place in the UK in future.

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