Europe’s largest nuclear fusion reactor under threat from Brexit

13 Oct 2017

Final octant section of the JET reactor being installed in 1982. Image: Eurofusion

Europe’s largest fusion reactor, the Joint European Torus, could be shut down in the wake of Brexit.

The UK scientific community’s reaction to the result of Brexit was nothing short of vitriolic. Many said that their entire careers were now under threat with the prospect that millions of pounds in academic research funding will be lost.

The UK Atomic Energy Authority has issued a stark warning that one of the country’s most advanced energy projects, the Joint European Torus (JET) nuclear fusion reactor, could be under threat from Brexit.

According to Sky News, UK politicians are stalling on trade agreements with the EU ahead of the split date of April 2019, and this could lead to significant legal barriers being put in place for the movement of parts and materials for anything to do with nuclear energy.

Under the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) agreement, a specialist market for the trade of nuclear power material through Europe was created but the UK’s exit would grind all research, including JET, to a halt.

Speaking of what could happen, the chief of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, Prof Ian Chapman, warned: “Leaving Euratom is absolutely an existential threat for us as an organisation – about two-thirds of my turnover comes from the European Commission.

“So, we have to find a resolution so we can continue to do the world-class, cutting-edge science that we do here.”

‘We are facing disruption to absolutely everything’

The existing nuclear fission industry is scrambling to prepare for life outside of Euratom by drawing up plans to relocate its nuclear materials and components to countries still signed up to the treaty.

In addition, it will turn to other trading partners such as the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand to form new trade agreements that abide by standards set out by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, did not hide his fears over the decision: “If we haven’t got all that done, then we are facing disruption to absolutely everything. 15 months to two years sounds like a lot of time – it’s not.”

While the UK plans to retire half of its fission plants by 2025, 21pc of the country’s power still comes from 15 reactors.

The UK’s biggest supplier of nuclear energy, EDF, claimed that by pulling out of Euratom, it will have limited access to components, resulting in “extended outages” at its power stations. The government has dismissed such claims as “scaremongering”.

However, any new international agreements will need to be wrapped up fast before new UK bilateral deals can be issued and signed off by other countries across the world.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic