Nuclear power station in the Swiss countryside near Bern

MPs hear fears of recruitment crisis fallout from UK's Euratom split

Image credit: Reuters/Denis Balibouse

Dozens of highly trained inspectors will have to be recruited by the Office for Nuclear Regulation to keep the country compliant with non-proliferation rules

Civil nuclear insiders fear the UK government is blasé about the impact that a scarcity of nuclear inspectors could have on the electricity-distribution network after Brexit.

The UK has given notice of its intention to quit Euratom at the same time as it withdraws from the European Union in March 2019 - but there are concerns Whitehall may have underestimated the number of inspectors required by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) to keep the country compliant with non-proliferation rules.

At a meeting in Parliament to discuss the implications of expanding the ONR’s remit, the organisation’s deputy chief inspector Mina Golshan said around 30 new recruits would be needed in the short to medium term. Golshan said: “We need to continue with our recruitment if we are to staff ourselves to deliver the new safeguards function.”

E&T understands the number of inspectors needed may ultimately be even higher than the figure quoted and that the government is planning to provide whatever funding is required to recruit them.

Since a highly specialised background and at least five years’ worth of specific training is needed, sufficient personnel could prove hard to come by. There is only a small talent pool available worldwide, and, as one nuclear expert put it when talking to E&T, Britain “can’t just go down the Job Centre and find several dozen nuclear inspectors”.

Though separate from the European Union, Euratom is governed by the bloc’s institutions - including the politically contentious European Court of Justice. The body helps carry out inspections mandated by the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to ensure no civil nuclear material is diverted for atomic weapons uses.

The ONR currently carries out separate health and safety functions - but the government wants to expand that role to encompass the work done by Euratom.

The nuclear industry operates according to rules separate from those set for many other types of trade by the World Trade Organisation, meaning a so-called hard Brexit – involving Britain leaving without transitional arrangement in place - could prove particularly problematic.

In a worst case scenario, power plants such as Sizewell B – which relies extensively on US company Westinghouse’s technology and components – could be forced to shut down since, under American law, it is illegal for that country’s firms to share intellectual property with foreign nations without any nuclear cooperation agreement in place.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy did not respond to a request for comment. However, the government has previously stated that it is attempting to establish fresh nuclear cooperation agreements in time.

Nuclear minister Richard Harrington last week told MPs probing the implications of the UK’s Euratom exit that the government intends to set up an internationally approved safeguards regime. He said “constructive progress” had been made in talks with the IAEA and US in a bid to ensure supply chains remained unharmed.

Shadow energy minister Alan Whitehead asked about the costs of the additional manpower needed by the ONR.

“Where is the money going to come from?” he said. “This is new work that hasn’t previously been budgeted for and that will require a lot more resource to undertake.

“The safeguards unit in the ONR currently comprises eight professional staff. Within a period between now and March 2019, roughly speaking, the ONR has got to find probably around 30 staff - qualified nuclear inspectors, highly skilled and trained, able to take on that responsibility.”

Euratom employs around 40 people in relation to safeguarding around UK establishments. It might potentially be possible for the ONR to poach some of these inspectors, who are understood to currently be domiciled in the UK and who may wish to apply to fill the new vacancies.

Rupert Cowen, a nuclear energy specialist at the law firm Prospect Law, told MPs on the Nuclear Safeguards Bill Committee that he was “very worried” about the potential for the UK’s energy sector to be hit by interruptions after Brexit.

There is a very substantial concern… that this bill as it stands will not allow a safeguards regime that is neutral in its application to the commercial parties that are participating in the industry,” he said, adding that nuclear agreements with the EU, US, South Korea, Japan and others would have to be renegotiated - and that the UK would be “at the mercy of the political will” of those states.

“It is unfortunately inevitable that we are going to be faced with discussions of renegotiating our nuclear cooperation agreements with key counterparties who are neither motivated to agree quickly nor able to because they have their own international obligations for recognising the adequacy of our safeguard arrangements,” Cowen said.

He added: “I can’t imagine the United States immediately withdrawing its expertise from the various sites, but they may choose to do so… There is a real concern that the ability to exchange information [with the UK] will potentially be illegal at the time we come out of Euratom if we don’t have successor arrangements in place.”

Cowen stressed he was not opposed to the Bill but warned: “It’s the disruption that frightens us. That isn’t scare stories – it’s a very real possibility. In terms of energy generation and spent fuels, it’s all going to stop if we don’t get it organised.

“I’m not saying in 10 years’ time we won’t have resolved it, but the next two or three years look pretty bleak. That’s the worry.”

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