Decision to leave Euratom ‘bonkers’, say experts

Future of UK nuclear research ‘uncertain’ after Brexit bill revelation

January 27, 2017

The UK is to leave the European Atomic Energy Community as part of Brexit in a move that has been condemned by energy researchers.

The decision to leave the organisation, which funds and coordinates nuclear research, was outlined as part of the government’s Brexit bill published on 26 January.

One nuclear energy researcher called the decision “bonkers”, while another added that it had created a huge amount of “uncertainty” for the field.

The decision has also raised questions about whether the country’s memberships of other European research organisations are at risk.

The community, known as Euratom, is an organisation that provides the basis for research and trade in nuclear power. The government’s desire to leave the organisation is outlined in the explanatory notes published alongside the bill giving it the authority to trigger Article 50 and leave the European Union.

It is not yet clear whether it would seek to rejoin the organisation after Brexit.

Euratom, in conjunction with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, funds the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy in Oxfordshire, which is the UK’s national laboratory for fusion research. Culham also hosts JET, Europe’s largest nuclear fusion device.

According to its website, the centre collaborates with more than 20 UK universities, and it specifically mentions links with groups at the universities of Warwick and Oxford as well as the Doctoral Training Network in fusion.

Steven Cowley, previously director of the Culham centre and now president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, said: “It would be bonkers to leave Euratom both for research and for nuclear safeguards.”

James Marrow, professor of energy materials at the University of Oxford, said that the funding available from Euratom was the “glue” that holds together the UK’s national nuclear research.

“Euratom is the way that we interacted with the European [nuclear research] programmes. [This move] creates huge uncertainty,” he said.

“Nuclear [research] is a bit different from many other areas in that it only makes progress through big projects, so for a single nation it is extremely difficult for them to develop anything new…[Projects] are very much collaborative, so we would be left out,” he added.

Meanwhile Juan Matthews, visiting professor at the Dalton Nuclear Institute at the University of Manchester, said that he hoped that the inclusion of Euratom in the Brexit bill was a mistake as it “just didn't make sense”.

“Euratom also controls the nuclear research and development aspects of the [EU’s] Horizon 2020 programme…UK research benefits more than our national contributions to Horizon 2020. A significant part of this is the work at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy on JET and our contribution to the ITER project,” he said.

ITER is another experimental nuclear fusion project in France. Professor Matthews added that “sorting all this out will produce delays and will hit hard both our economy and our science”.

Reacting to the news, Mark McCaughrean, a senior adviser at the European Space Agency, tweeted: “While #Euratom is specifically linked to EU, how long before the ‘principle’ is extended to other European research organisations?”

A spokeswoman for the UK government said: “Leaving Euratom is a result of the decision to leave the EU as they are uniquely legally joined. The UK supports Euratom and will want to see continuity of cooperation and standards.”

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles

Reader's comments (1)

The decision to potentially curtail support for fusion research is not necessarily "bonkers." My Jan. 12, 2017, article in New Energy Times, revealed that fusion researchers have grossly misled the public on their claims of progress. My investigative findings are based on (a) my 2014 discovery of JET's publicly undisclosed (at the time) real power input, (b) extensive communication with Laban Coblentz, the current spokesman for ITER, and (c) discussions with key members of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee. On Jan. 16, 2017, Michel Claessens, the former head of communications for ITER, critical of the wrong "figures regarding 'fusion power'" on the ITER Web site, contacted me. In my Jan. 18, 2017, interview with him, Claessens confirmed the accuracy of my article. Moreover, as my (recorded with his consent) interview shows, Claessens had not known the real power input for JET's record-setting fusion experiment. Similarly, in 2014, when I interviewed Mark Koepke, the chair of the Fusion Energy Sciences Advisory Committee, he didn't know JET's input power. Even Charles Seife, the author of a very critical book on fusion, didn't know. To my knowledge, no journalist has reported the real input power for JET's record fusion pulse, which, until Jan. 12, 2017, had been the best kept secret in the fusion business. In his 2013 book, Daniel Clery wrote, "Considering how close JET, [ITER's] predecessor, got to break even, ITER has to have a good chance." This is typical of how ITER has been sold, based on the perception of JET's results. But that premise was based on fundamentally wrong data. For decades, elected officials (as my Jan. 18 report shows) have been given misleading JET numbers to gain their authorization to fund ITER and other large fusion research projects. To my knowledge, there was no public disclosure of the real power input until 2014, when I asked Nick Holloway, the spokesman for JET, questions about it. In 2015, the EUROfusion Web site disclosed the number: It was at least 700 million Watts, rather than what is typically stated: 24 million Watts. JET never came within 65 percent of breakeven for the reactor; it only came within 2 percent of breakeven for the reactor. Fusion scientists have hidden this fact, couched in the seemingly innocuous term "fusion power" and its associated insider terminology "scientific breakeven" versus "engineering breakeven." As of earlier today, the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy was still hiding the vast amount of power required for the reactor. On its FAQ Web page, it presents the question "What is the power input to the fusion reactor used for?" The response shown on the Web site refers only to the heating power and omits power required for other required subsystems, most significantly the magnetic subsystem. Fusion energy research is important and, if practical, may be help to combat climate change. But scientific integrity must come first, and this includes clear and complete disclosure to target audiences, be they members of the public or elected officials. Steven B. Krivit