First published in August 2019.


The European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC or Euratom) is an international organisation which established the Euratom Treaty on the 25th March 1957. It was signed by Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The UK became part of Euratom when it joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973, which was one of the pillars to create the European Union. Its aims are to develop the nuclear market with peaceful civil nuclear fission fuel supply, coordinate research into nuclear fusion, improve nuclear safety and manage training programs across Europe and beyond.

The public became aware of Euratom’s existence when the scientific community strongly reacted to the European Union Bill (notification of withdrawal) — Clause 1 [1].

“18. The power that is provided by clause 1(1) applies to withdrawal from the EU. This includes the European Atomic Energy Community (‘Euratom’), as the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008 sets out that the term “EU” includes (as the context permits or requires) Euratom (section 3(2)).”

(European Union Bill (notification of withdrawal) — Clause 1 [1])

The announcement to leave the Euratom Treaty was unexpected [2] as it is legally distinct from the European Union. However, it shares the same membership and has links with other EU institutions such as the European Commission, Council and Courts of Justice.

Article 106a [3] of the Euratom Treaty (Title III — Chapter 1) says “Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union […] shall apply to this Treaty”.

Steve Peers, Professor of Law and expert on the European Union, explains that it could be read in two ways: you can be free to leave the EU but not Euratom, or leaving the EU implies leaving Euratom [4].

The UK has decided to leave Euratom to become independent of all EU institutions, even though it was not legally required [4].

The Euratom Treaty (Title I — Article 2) [3] says “In order to perform its task, the Community shall, as provided in this Treaty: (g) ensure [..] freedom of employment for specialists within the Community”. Unfortunately, this conflicts with one of the desires of those who voted to leave the European Union. While a country has the possibility to become an “Associated country”, it would nonetheless be required to participate under the same conditions as the Member States. The restriction of EU freedom of movement desired by Brexit remains a red line. It would be a breach of Euratom obligations in the scenario where the UK would stay in the Euratom Community as an Associated Country (e.g. Switzerland).

This paper will explain how Euratom impacts our day-to-day lives and how leaving Euratom could affect our future. It will state assumptions on impacts the withdrawal might have. It will affect three different but not unrelated sectors:

1. Nuclear medicine: diagnostic and cancer treatments
2. Power plants and nuclear waste management
3. Research and climate change

1. Nuclear medicine: diagnostic and cancer treatments

Nuclear technology is not only used to produce electricity, it is also used in the medical sector. Nuclear medicine is used to diagnose (medical imaging) and treat cancer (radiotherapy). The common radioisotopes used in nuclear medicine are Technetium-99m (Tc99m) and Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99). They are provided by the Euratom Supply Agency (ESA). Nuclear medicine is used to diagnose/treat about 35 million patients (in 10000 hospitals) world wild every year, of which 9 million in Europe (20% of the global market) [5].

The medical radioisotopes Tc-99m and Mo-99 decay very quickly, which makes storage and transport time-critical (Tc-99m has a half-life of 6h, Mo-99 has a half-life is 66h). To be imported, Mo-99 is supplied by specialised radiopharmaceutical companies in the form of Tc-99m generators. These generators contain Mo-99 and produce Tc-99m as the Mo-99 decays. The life-time of the generators is a week. It is very important that the withdrawal from Euratom must not introduce delays in the shipment of these medical supplies. With a very short life-time, this essential material -used to diagnose cancer- might not arrive in a viable state, which could lead to delays in cancer treatment and putting patients at risk. Leaving Euratom would affect access to these radioisotope supplies and would need to form part of the Brexit negotiations.

The Brexit negotiations will determine the conditions on how, when and the quantity of elements that will be delivered. Current British nuclear reactors are unable to produce them; therefore, the supplies are currently imported [6]. Hinkley Point C, the newest British nuclear reactor, will have the technology to produce medical radioisotopes (explained in more detail in the “Power plants and nuclear waste management” section). When the plant will be delivered, it should help to address the global shortage of supplies that we currently face, including the anticipated increase of demand of 5% per annum [7]. However, Hinkley Point C is not planned to come online until 2025 and its construction is also likely be impacted by the decision to withdraw from Euratom.

At present, under Euratom it is easy to transfer material across Europe. While it will depend on the outcome of any renegotiation, there is a risk that the UK may face additional costs. Given the NHS is a large user of radioisotopes, any increased administrative costs related to the transport and shipment of the medical supplies to the UK would be an additional financial burden for the NHS.

Under the Euratom Treaty, the European Commission is also responsible for the protection of patients and other individuals in medical facilities [8]. It is likely that the safety rules covering the use of radioisotopes will be copied from the Basic Safety Standards Directive (2013/59/Euratom) which are the basic safety standards for protection against the dangers arising from exposure to ionising radiation. It is in everyone’s interest to follow them. As the safety rules are in the public domain, the UK can simply copy them, though the UK will need to keep in step with future updates (as they are continuously evolving).

2. Power plants and Nuclear wastes management

The nuclear power stations generate 21% of electricity produced in the UK [9]. The UK has 15 operational power generating nuclear reactors located in seven plants (14 advanced gas-cooled reactors [AGR] and one pressurised water reactor [PWR]). There is a nuclear reprocessing plant (at Sellafield) for waste management and storage [10]. Nuclear power is a low-carbon emission power source and a key component for the UK in meeting Paris Agreement’s environmental targets.

In order to produce electricity, nuclear reactors rely on Uranium to fuel the nuclear chain reaction. The fission reaction generates heat, which is absorbed by the reactor coolant and used to produce steam. The steam then runs through turbines, which in turn, produce electrical power.

Uranium is a naturally occurring heavy metal able to release abundant concentrated energy via a nuclear chain reaction. Uranium is found in uranium ore, which is a mix of Uranium and other elements. To be used as fuel in a nuclear power plant, Uranium ore must be processed to extract the fissile Uranium. This is then packaged to create fuel rods, which are complicated to produce and specific to a particular reactor design. The UK does not have any natural uranium ore deposits, uranium must be imported. The Euratom Treaty — Article 2 (d) [3] ensures “that all users in the Community receive a regular and equitable supply of ores and nuclear fuels”. The Euratom Supply Agency (ESA) provides access to the European Fuel Market and the Euratom Community’s Nuclear Co‑operation Agreements (NCA), though which the UK obtains its nuclear fuels.

If the post-Brexit agreements do not meet the current NCA standards, additional pressures on stocks and delays might -in the worst-case scenario- lead to a shortage of electricity supply if stocks of fuel drop too low. The Department for Exiting the European Union stated that the UK must leave Euratom at the same time as exiting the European Union (2 years). The Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) recommends to negotiate a post-Brexit NCA “…with key markets; however, the negotiations, agreements and approval could take years” [11]. Pressures on the negotiations’ timeline could lead to flaws which could legally hamper the flow of fuel.

The transport of nuclear fuels (and radioactive wastes) are within the scope of the Euratom Directives on Trans-frontier Shipments of Spent Fuel and Radioactive Waste (Directive 2006/117/Euratom) and Safety of Waste (Directive 2011/70/Euratom) implemented under UK regulations [11]. The Euratom Treaty has safeguards and reporting requirements, which provide for monthly inspections of nuclear sites, especially for plants with a higher risk of hazards. The Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant is Europe’s largest nuclear site, which manages an important stockpile of civilian plutonium accumulated from reprocessed nuclear fuel coming from all over the world. It is one of the most complex reprocessing plants in the world [12]. The UK has a safeguard agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Euratom [13]. The UK would likely need to re-negotiate it’s safeguard agreements with Euratom following withdrawal due to requiring access to shared nuclear materials.

Three new nuclear power plant projects are under construction. One of these projects is the “Hinkley Point C” power station, located in Somerset (South West England). It will consist of two European Pressurised Reactors (EPR), a new reactor design. Hinkley Point C has a projected lifetime of 60 years and a cost of £18bn [14] and is expected to deliver 7% of the UK’s total electricity. The construction will provide 25,000 jobs and the finished plant should offer 900 jobs [15]. The “Hinkley Point C” power station could give the UK the opportunity to produce its own nuclear medical supplies (see chapter on Euratom and Nuclear medicine). The uncertainty caused by the withdrawal from Euratom regarding management of nuclear safety, movement of goods, technology and people might cause delays and put the project at risk. The other two projects, from Horizon nuclear power (Gloucestershire) and NuGeneration (Cumbria), rely on international cooperation with Japan and the USA. The current nuclear cooperation agreement allows Euratom community members to collaborate with non-EU countries (considered as “third-countries”). However, it will become illegal under US laws for the UK (outside Euratom) to continue its collaboration with the US [11]. The new NCA post-Brexit would have a specific arrangement with the UK to allow collaboration.

3. Research and Climate change

The negative impact of human activities on Earth cannot be denied. The population is continuously growing; consequently, global demand for energy is increasing. At present, 80.8% of the developed world’s energy comes from fossil fuels [16]. It is the most common source of energy, due to its low price and its accessibility. The harm caused to Earth and the threat to our long term future is analysed by The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which assesses the scientific, technical and socioeconomic information relevant to the understanding of the risk of human-induced climate change. The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) adopted the Paris Agreement, defining objectives to limit the environmental impact of human activities. It was signed by 195 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) members — in Paris, on the 12th December 2015. It has been ratified by 148 countries [17]. The aim of the Paris agreement is to slow down the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C. To reach this goal it is necessary to reduce world wild use of fossil fuels in favour of low greenhouse gas emission energy sources.

At present, no single “clean” technology is able to fulfil our needs: to address the increase in energy demands whilst simultaneously reducing the negative impact of human activities on the planet. Meeting the 2°C target entails a 41% reduction in total energy related CO2 emissions and a 70% reduction in power sector emissions [18]. Due to negligible greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear energy is among the best energy sources that could help to meet the climate-energy challenge. To meet the Paris Agreement, a combination of nuclear and renewable energies will be required. However, there is a limited supply of fuel (Uranium) for nuclear fission. A joint report by the Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) [19] estimated that the exploitation of the entire conventional resource base -based on current uranium consumption in power reactors- would be sufficient for over 240 years. However, the demand is continuously growing and new power plants are being built in countries that are rapidly developing (e.g. China, India). The European Commission estimates that the known Uranium resources will only last for 72 years [20]. It implies that there is an urgent need for a new long-term nuclear solution. Nuclear fusion energy technology could be the solution.

Nuclear fusion is one of the most promising options for generating large amounts of carbon-free energy in the future. It has multiple advantages such as supply reliability, no carbon emissions, abundant fuel (millions of years!), energy efficiency, and no long-lived radioactive waste [3].

The UK is a world leader in fusion energy and hosts the Joint European Torus (JET) scientific experiment. The JET project started in 1983 and is located at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy (CCFE) in Abingdon (Oxfordshire). The CCFE is responsible for running the JET facilities, via a contract between the European Commission and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA). It receives around $60 million annually from Euratom via the EUROfusion consortium.

The JET fusion reactor (known as a tokamak) is currently the world’s largest fusion experiment and the only one able to perform experiments with real fusion fuel, Deuterium-Tritium (DT). The very specific DT operations that JET is able to perform -under Euratom funding- are vital to understanding the physics of fusion and to prepare for operations in next generation tokamak experiment, known as ITER (Latin for “the way”, formerly International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor). Located in France, the ITER project -an international collaboration, with a cost over $14 billion- is expected to enter operation around 2030, with the first DT plasma experiments around 2035. The future of ITER depends on JET, which is why JET has to run as long as possible to allow a better understanding of the physics and allow the physicists to continue their research. A strong collaboration between projects is necessary, physicists will need to be able to travel between the UK and France to bring their expertise together, especially when ITER will produce its first plasma. Freedom of movement of labour -required by the Euratom Treaty (Title I, Article 2 [g]) [3] - is important in most scientific projects, however it is essential in the European and international fusion research projects. Following ITER, the DEMOnstration fusion power plant (DEMO) will be built which will be the first nuclear fusion project to produce electricity. It will lead the way to the commercialisation of the fusion energy. If successful, it is estimated that fusion nuclear energy will produce at least 20% of the world’s energy by 2100 [21].

The JET operating contract with Euratom -via EUROFusion- runs out in 2018; the negotiations for an extension up to 2020 are ongoing, but have been impacted heavily by the Brexit vote. Leaving Euratom puts the world-wide fusion program at increased risk due to the impact on the ITER project [2]. Negotiations to find a suitable solution have to be carefully handled as the consequences of failure could be disastrous to the program. The possibility of transitional arrangements is under negotiation but the limited negotiation time to agree both -a Euratom replacement and a new JET funding agreement- is a major concern in the community.

Fusion energy could be a key solution in meeting the climate change challenges. It is likely that arrangements will be made to allow fusion experiments to continue. However, the delay of the negotiations for finding an equivalent replacement for Euratom, along with the delay caused by the General Election 2017, are likely to cause threats to, and postponements of, the future JET experiments necessary to ITER, DEMO and the future fusion power plants.


This paper is a statement of facts about three Euratom core areas which could suffer the most from exiting the Euratom Community. It should be noted that the scope of Euratom goes even further. It also includes the promotion of innovation and industrial competitiveness and the safeguarding controls to ensure the nuclear materials are not diverted from peaceful purposes to weapons.

The Euratom Community and its Treaty plays a key role in our life, our health and in the fight against climate change.

Protracted negotiations could lead to multiple issues. The shortage of supplies caused by possible delays could lead to insufficient electricity supply to consumers, and put the users of nuclear medicine at risk of not receiving their vital treatments on time. The delays in negotiations to extend the JET contract could add pressure to the DT experiments. It might delay all fusion energy research projects, as the results depend on JET. It could threaten our abilit to meet the Paris Agreement challenges and to ensure our extended future generations have access to secure, efficient, low-carbon emission energy.

The UK needs to decide promptly the negotiation terms of the withdrawal from Euratom to obtain -at least- the equivalent of the Euratom Community’s Nuclear Co‑operation Agreements (NCA). Any loss would be extremely damaging.

In the author’s opinion, the replacement of the Euratom Treaty would maybe be achievable within the two-years deadline if it was the only negotiation on the agenda, excluding the delays caused by the early General Election 2017. Unfortunately, Euratom is one area amongst hundreds of others impacted by the decision to leave the European Union (EU). Exiting the Euratom Treaty and Community rapidly will likely lead to unsatisfactory agreements, which could be avoided as there is no legal requirement to leave both entities at the same time [4].

If the UK’s decision to leave Euratom is irrevocable, the UK should agree to make concession on EU freedom of movement to become an Associated country, and therefore, limit the damages whilst it is still possible.🔷

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[This piece was originally published on the PMP Blog! and re-published in PMP Magazine on 18 December 2017, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Pixabay.)