Brexit’s nuclear fallout: 3,000 cubic metres of Oxfordshire waste

Uncertainty over who will pay an estimated £289m to decommission EU-owned project

by: Alex Barker and Arthur Beesley in Brussels

One unusual item affected by the fallout from Britain voting to leave the EU: 3,000 cubic metres of radioactive waste in rural Oxfordshire.

The eventual decommissioning of an EU-owned nuclear tokamak machine, currently the largest nuclear fusion experiment in the world, is a potential flashpoint in Brexit negotiations, with the cost estimated at £289m.

Based at the Culham Centre in south Oxfordshire, the Joint European Torus (JET) project involves some 350 scientists exploring the potential of fusion power, backed by funding from almost 40 countries in the EUROfusion consortium.

The future of the project is in doubt because Britain is potentially ending its membership of Euratom, Europe’s treaty framework for the safe civilian use of nuclear energy. Membership is required for participation in EUROfusion.

Established by treaty in 1957, the Euratom community is legally separate from the EU but it is governed by EU institutions such as the European Commission, which oversees the safe operation of civilian nuclear installations.

Britain’s plan to trigger the Article 50 exit clause of the EU would, according to EU lawyers, notify intention to exit Euratom as well. “We have no idea what will happen to this British nuclear facility,” said one senior Brexit negotiator.

The British government is yet to make clear its nuclear co-operation plans. A spokesperson said: “The government is assessing the legal and policy implications of the public’s vote to leave the EU, including the UK’s membership of Euratom.”

On the day after Britain’s vote to leave the EU, Tony Donné, the programme manager for EUROfusion, said: “Our British member [Culham] is a strong contributor to the European fusion programme. We will be working hard to continue the collaboration after 2018. If and how this is possible is impossible to say today.”

Dr Paul Dorfman, honorary senior researcher at the Energy Institute at University College London, said a departure from Euratom would “necessarily diminish nuclear safety regulation” in the UK.

Britain’s exit from Euratom would send a “confusing” message on the future of nuclear energy, Dr Dorfman added. “The UK government is in favour of nuclear expansion. The last thing they should want to do is leave Euratom.”

A JET paper from 2003 estimates that dismantling the plant would generate approximately 3,000 cubic metres of radioactive waste — enough to easily fill an Olympic swimming pool. The UK Atomic Energy Authority has provisioned for decommissioning costs of up to £289m, although it added there was “significant uncertainty” over the estimate.

It is unclear how any exit from Euratom would affect those calculations or cost-sharing arrangements.

Separately the EU accounts show almost €1.1bn in decommissioning liabilities from other Euratom installations around Europe, including the 167-hectare Ispra site in Italy. Brussels wants the UK to cover its share of those costs, even after leaving.

Euratom can enter agreements or contracts to co-operate with third countries. Eight such agreements are in place — with the US, Japan, Canada, Australia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and South Africa — but they vary in scope. Any third-party agreement between the UK and Euratom would not be the same as opting-in for membership of the organisation.

For almost half a century, scientists have attempted with limited success to make a commercial success of fusion, harnessing the nuclear reaction that powers the sun and the H-bomb. Since it created its first plasma in 1983, JET has set various milestones in research, including the world record for fusion power in 1997.

Its tokamak is a design precursor and important testing centre for ITER, a project to build a bigger, more powerful experimental fusion reactor in Cadarache in France. Expected delays to that ITER project had raised hopes that research at JET would continue beyond 2018, a decision that will now be part of Brexit talks.

Fuels used in nuclear fusion, which squashes atoms together, are less hazardous than in a fission reactor, which splits them apart.

Nevertheless Culham’s JET experiments have used tritium, a radioactive hydrogen isotope, leaving a legacy of contamination that will take almost a century to clear. The plasma facing walls of Culham’s tokamak are also made of Beryllium, a metal that can be a toxic health hazard.