Government’s post-Brexit nuclear safeguarding plans scuppered
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The government has suffered a double defeat at the hands of peers over its move to put in place a domestic nuclear safeguards regime after leaving the European Union.
The setback came as the Tory administration was accused of “playing Russian roulette” with the UK’s energy security by quitting Europe’s nuclear regulator.
During report stage of the Nuclear Safeguards Bill in the House of Lords, peers backed by 265 votes to 194, majority 71, a call to delay Britain leaving Euratom if no alternative agreements were in place in the run-up to Brexit day.
The government was subsequently dealt a second blow over the reporting of future arrangements with the watchdog on nuclear research and development, as well as the import and export of qualifying nuclear material.
Labour’s amendment, which had Liberal Democrat and crossbench support, was approved by 244 votes to 194, majority 50.
A series of peers raised concerns over leaving Euratom without having other arrangements in place.
Energy minister Lord Henley said the triggering of the formal proceedings for quitting the EU also started the process for leaving Euratom and insisted it was a “done deal”.
He insisted the government was “on track” to secure agreements with Britain’s nuclear partners post-Brexit.
But independent crossbencher Lord Broers, former vice chancellor of the University of Cambridge and president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, argued the need “to give us the confidence that these agreements are complete and appropriate and will maintain the highest standards in safeguarding our nuclear power”.
Moving an amendment to the Bill, he said: “Of all the world’s complex technologies, nuclear power is surely one where we must maintain collaboration with our partners, especially those in Europe.”
Former Labour minister Lord Warner, who sits as an independent crossbencher, said: “The issue is the way that the government has been playing Russian roulette with our energy security by the ill-considered and ideological rush to leave Euratom without being sure an equivalent regime is properly in place.”
He added: “Clearly a responsible government would stay in Euratom and not risk the disruption and uncertainty to a critical industry that departure brings, but not this one.”
Labour former Cabinet minister Lord Hutton of Furness, who is chairman of the Nuclear Industry Association, said: “It’s good to have a default, good to have a back-up.”
He said: “I don’t think any of us should take a gamble or a risk with the energy security of our country.”
Tory peer Viscount Trenchard argued there was an “upside” to leaving the regulator in that it would allow the UK “to escape from the rather cumbersome and onerous Euratom process”.
Opposition spokesman Lord Grantchester said there was “widespread opinion” that alternative agreements would not be in place by exit day in March 2019.
Lord Henley said “positive and constructive discussions” had been held with the US, Canada, Australia and Japan, and added: “I believe we remain on track to ensure these agreements will be in place in time.”
He argued the amendment would introduce “further uncertainty and potential disruption” by casting doubt on creating a domestic nuclear safeguards regime in the long-term.
On the other amendment, the minister argued it was unnecessary as the government was already committed to transparency and would provide quarterly reports to parliament on the Euratom negotiations.
But Labour spokesman Lord Hunt of Kings Heath argued the government should go further in offering assurances on nuclear safeguards.
Last year it was warned that nuclear plants in England, Scotland and Wales could be forced to shut down if transitional arrangements on atomic power are not in place by 2019.