Top nuclear physicist warns Theresa May her 'baffling' plan to leave EU agency risks UK's electric car revolution

Exclusive: Professor Martin Freer has said the decision to leave Euratom is ‘short-sighted, counterproductive and dangerous’

Joe Watts
Political Editor
Saturday 05 August 2017 21:15 BST
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PM’s decision to leave Euratom is allegedly driven by her desire to remove the UK from European Court of Justice jurisdiction
PM’s decision to leave Euratom is allegedly driven by her desire to remove the UK from European Court of Justice jurisdiction (PA)

The Prime Minister must ditch her “baffling” decision to leave the EU’s nuclear agency as it risks derailing the UK’s push to ban petrol and diesel cars, one of Britain’s leading nuclear physicists has warned.

Writing exclusively for The Independent, Professor Martin Freer said quitting Euratom will hit the UK’s nuclear-driven power supply, just as demand for electricity explodes due to a soaring number of battery-powered cars.

The award-winning academic said pulling out of the agency is “short-sighted, counterproductive and dangerous” as he implored the Prime Minister to rethink the move in favour of a “sensible position”.

The position that leaving Euratom could damage plans to electrify Britain’s roads – a flagship green policy announced amid fanfare in July – follows claims that quitting the agency also risks the supply of life-saving cancer treatments.

In his article today, Professor Freer concurs with other experts who say the announcement to ban all new petrol and diesel cars by 2040 is set to put a huge strain on the UK’s power grid, with increasing numbers of new electric cars needing charging.

He then writes: “We will need to meet this huge increase in electricity demand with a range of low-carbon technologies: wind-power, solar, tidal, batteries and crucially nuclear power.

“Nuclear has provided about 20 per cent of the UK’s electricity supply for several decades and it has done so reliably and without producing any CO2 emissions.”

The academic, who has won a series of international prizes for his work on nuclear matter, adds: “If we leave Euratom without the necessary arrangements in place, then we will be unable to import the material to power our nuclear power stations.”

The decision to leave Euratom is believed to be largely driven by Ms May’s desire to remove the UK from all areas of jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, which oversees the nuclear agency.

But Professor Freer said leaving “is completely unnecessary and has zero benefits” and claims that there is not a single advocate for doing so beyond “Government lawyers”.

Professor Freer writes: “Leaving Euratom without a viable alternative will only worsen our security of supply position, which is already challenging.

“Rapid role out of electric vehicles over the next decade and beyond will further worsen this situation if we don’t have the policies and investment in place to meet demand, and the government risks creating a major challenge to delivering reliable, affordable and low-carbon energy.”

The Government’s position remains that the UK will leave the nuclear oversight body and set up its own regime after Brexit.

But under pressure from MPs, including enough on the Conservative benches to cause an upset in the Commons, it has signalled a potential softening, emphasising a “strong, mutual interest” in ensuring the UK work closely with Euratom.

No other countries will follow Britain in leaving the EU, says David Davis

Brexit Secretary David Davis has said that an “association agreement” may even be possible, but has been clear the UK will not sign up to any mechanism which gives the ECJ oversight over UK affairs.

A Government spokesperson said: “The nuclear industry is of key strategic importance to the whole of the UK and the Government remains absolutely committed to the highest standards of nuclear safety, safeguards and support for the sector.

“We are working to ensure that the UK is prepared for our withdrawal from Euratom which is why we will bring forward a Nuclear Safeguards Bill in the first session and why we want to maintain our mutually successful civil nuclear co-operation with the EU.”

​Euratom is also responsible for coordinating and regulating the transport, use and disposal of nuclear materials in Europe, including many of the isotopes used in radiotherapy and some kinds of body scans.

Martin McKee, Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, warned last month that quitting would make it harder for the UK to access the isotopes for cancer treatments and medical imaging, adding: “Ministers have no excuse for failing to anticipate this controversy.”

Labour Shadow Brexit minister Paul Blomfield said: “From delaying access to cancer treatments, to threatening our green energy supply, the Government’s decision to quit Euratom is clearly not in the national interest.

“The Government must drop their unhelpful and unnecessary red line on the future role of the European Court of Justice, which is becoming a barrier to a successful outcome on this and other critical issues. Their stubbornness on the ECJ is reckless and irresponsible.”

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