Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of their intention to leave Euratom, how they intend to ensure the continued uninterrupted cross-border supply of nuclear materials, including for medical use, post-Brexit.
My Lords, this is a short debate and I shall be direct and to the point.
Euratom is not a European Union organisation. It is effective and low key, and perhaps one of its greatest successes is that unless you deal with it you have probably never heard of it. I suspect that, until the past few weeks, that was true of a number of senior members of the Government as well.
The important area of Euratom is as the safeguarding authority under the International Atomic Energy Authority, which is the global authority that ensures that non-proliferation, and all the regimes and regulations around it, are implemented and effective. Effectively, Euratom is the one-stop shop for all its 28 members—the same 28 members as those of the European Union. Its safeguarding role includes trade in fissile and other nuclear materials, fuel, reactors, knowledge and expertise. Under the Euratom treaty there is a nuclear common market, which deals with the transfer of nuclear materials and other areas around freedom of movement of scientists and technicians. On a practical basis, it has a Euratom supply agency that looks after and ensures the supply of nuclear fuels and radioactive isotopes for the medical area of the whole Euratom community—all 28 of its member states.
Importantly, it is the counterparty to the nuclear co-operation agreements with third-party supply countries around the world, including, importantly, the United States, Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan and South Korea. It also includes agreements with Japan in other areas of nuclear co-operation. It is also—this is particularly important for the United Kingdom—a key provider of research and development funding, not least for the UK; it provides some €56 million per annum to support the Joint European Torus—the JET—programme in Culham, Oxfordshire. So that is Euratom.
The United Kingdom has no International Atomic Energy Authority-approved safeguarding body at this time. That is done by Euratom. We have no indigenous nuclear fuel supply, no native source of radio isotopes and no bilateral nuclear co-operation agreements. However, we have an existing nuclear fleet of power stations which provides one-fifth of our energy and relies on imported nuclear fuel. We have a new generation of power stations being built—the first one is at Hinkley Point—which will rely very largely on foreign parts and technology, and some 45 nuclear agreements will need to be replaced once we exit Euratom.
The issue is this: just like the Brexit clock, the atomic clock is ticking. We have 20 months left, and if there is no agreement with Euratom and no International Atomic Energy Authority safeguarding regime in the United Kingdom, literally all that cross-border trade stops—it ceases. This is not a WTO situation where, after exiting the EU, we undertake trade under WTO terms; in many legislatures—particularly in the United States—it will become a criminal offence to trade with us on these materials. That is where we will be potentially in 20 months’ time. I hope that will not be the case and I look forward to the Minister explaining why it will not be.
Radioactive isotopes identify and treat cancers. In the United Kingdom, some 500,000 procedures use these materials each year. Again, we have no domestic supply. They are very perishable. In fact, the half-life of some is as little as hours, and for the most important ones it is days—and that means that they are perishable. We import the vast majority of them from France, Belgium and the Netherlands, all of which are Euratom member states at the present time. That supply chain is fragile.
I was concerned that the Minister in the other place, when it had a debate on Euratom, said that there was no issue about medical isotopes because they were not fissile material. I do not want to think that Ministers’ Statements can no longer be trusted, but this is an easy soundbite around a much more complex situation.
Radioactive medical isotopes are specifically listed in annex IV of chapter 9 of the Euratom treaty, along with other items such as nuclear reactors. Indeed, chapter 9 is all about the nuclear common market which in turn is all about movement. It involves not only the isotopes themselves but the containers in which and methods by which they are transported. The perishability of isotopes means that their inability to travel large distances becomes particular important. In fact, there is form in this area. In 2008 the technical issues that created delays and difficulties in the Eurotunnel at the time meant that the isotopes could not be transported quickly and efficiently from other parts of western Europe. That led to a number of cancer procedures being delayed and cancelled here in UK hospitals.
That was followed in 2009 by a world shortage of these isotopes and difficulties in the supply chain. As a result, the Euratom Supply Agency set up the European Observatory on the Supply of Medical Radioisotopes to help the whole of the community solve the long-term problem of ensuring the supply of medical isotopes. That vital work is still continuing and covers all 28 member states. So I ask the Minister: from that point of view, is it really worth putting 500,000 cancer procedures each year at some risk just because Euratom itself uses the ECJ as its legal arbiter?
I have a number of questions. Have the Government initiated their discussions with the International Atomic Energy Authority on the UK having its own safeguarding regime—and one that has any chance of being approved within 20 months? What discussions have we had with our supply countries, on which we are totally dependent, including the United States, Canada and Australia? Can we get serious about the isotopes question and move beyond the soundbites? I ask that because there are some real issues which I believe are far more complex than perhaps Ministers have said and agreed so far. Are the Government open to a transition agreement between Britain and Euratom, and indeed is the Euratom community likely to agree to such an agreement? Most importantly, when it comes to security of supply, will the UK apply to remain a member of the European Observatory on the Supply of Medical Radioisotopes, which is at the core of ensuring that the supply chain survives into the future?
It is said that Ministers did not really want to come out of Euratom. They recognised that it was efficient, effective and a good one-stop shop for all 28 member states. I would ask them to have the courage of their convictions and remind them that there is still time to change.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for tabling this debate and I agree with what he has said. I intervene for only two reasons: first, to underline the importance of Euratom; and, secondly, to draw more general conclusions for the way in which the negotiations on leaving the EU are being carried out. I have a long-standing concern about and support for the nuclear industry, but I hesitate to say that it is now half a century since I worked for the AEA at Harwell and Culham. Even in those days you needed international agreements on the transport, storage and use of fissile and radioactive materials. During our membership of the EU, all that has been provided by Euratom. The organisation is also vital to the development of nuclear power, which in turn is vital to help us reach our targets on carbon-free energy supplies, both in this country and around the world. This is even more important because ownership of the UK nuclear industry is almost entirely in the hands of overseas firms.
Euratom is also vital to the development of nuclear science and research, and to keeping that expertise and facilities available in this country, in particular the important Joint European Torus at Culham and its fusion research. It is also vital, as the noble Lord has just said, to the provision of medical supplies and treatments. Radioisotopes are used to treat many key diseases including cancer, cardiovascular conditions and brain problems. I would venture to say, given the demography of this House, that many of us depend for our quality of life on such treatments and the continued high standards of safety and security of supply of such treatments. Euratom is also vital as a part of the non-proliferation treaty and therefore to world peace.
Legally speaking, initially the Government could not really make up their mind whether the vote to leave the EU inevitably meant that we would have to leave Euratom. As late as last December we were told that the Government were still,
“assessing the legal and policy implications of the vote to leave, including the potential implications for the UK’s membership of Euratom”.
Because Euratom was originally a separate treaty before the treaties were consolidated, it was arguable that we could differentiate even in the consolidated treaty. Legal opinions differ, but it would have been possible to argue that we could remain a full member of Euratom had it not been for the Government’s obsession about the jurisdiction of the ECJ, which in practice has not often intervened in Euratom business.
Does my noble friend recall that the Republic of Ireland joined Euratom a long time before it joined the European Economic Community? In fact, I chaired a meeting in Cambridge in 1961 at which the Taoiseach said that Ireland was going to apply to join Euratom, which of course was a staging post to joining the European Economic Community, but equally that demonstrated that they are not exactly the same thing.
My Lords, I agree with my noble friend, who goes back even further than I do. The issue of whether we could continue to be a member of Euratom ought still to be live in the initial withdrawal discussions because it will define the way in which we will withdraw from the European institutions. If the Government are not prepared to seek full membership of Euratom, they must at least publicly state their objective of having full associate membership so that we can still have some influence over how the standards are set, the areas in which research is directed, and the funds that are related to those.
If the Government do not treat Euratom as somewhat different from the rest of the treaty and show that they can have a different sort of relationship, they are in effect defining Euratom and its agencies as EU agencies. I have with me a list of 34 EU agencies and in all cases the industries and organisations which participate in those agencies want to retain something very close to the status quo. This morning my Select Committee was discussing aviation and the issues around the European Aviation Safety Agency. The same is true in food standards, chemicals, banking and so forth. The industries want to retain a position within those agencies that is as close to the status quo as possible. The way in which we treat Euratom may well be the template for the way in which we deal with all the other agencies. I hope that the Government will take on board the very widespread view that most of those agencies work to our economic, social and environmental advantage. We should try to retain as close a relationship as possible in these negotiations.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Teverson for giving us the opportunity to debate this important issue again, although I confess that I had hoped that by now the Government would have seen the error of their obduracy and reversed their position on Euratom. The safeguarding regime provided by Euratom and the nuclear collaboration with our partners through Euratom are obviously critical to the civil nuclear power programme in this country. However, I want to touch in particular on the implications for the National Health Service and, most importantly, for all of us who in the future may become patients requiring treatment with medical radioisotopes.
I know the importance of this matter because my partner was recently treated by the fantastic staff at the Royal Marsden Hospital in Fulham. The treatment that he received involved radioisotopes created in a German reactor which supplies the NHS for this purpose. As my noble friend has explained, the inspection, transport and safeguarding of the various stages in this critical process are ultimately overseen by Euratom. I do not doubt that we can create our own nuclear safeguarding regime, although whether we can do it without disruption to the current arrangements and additional and unnecessary costs, with all the potential impacts on the health of the people of this country, is, at least, unclear.
In any event, why on earth would we want to go to the trouble of withdrawing from an organisation which has been effectively providing nuclear safeguarding for our country for the past 40 years? What is the point of it? There is none. Not only will we involve ourselves in costly and unnecessary duplication, but in the end we will have to work out the means of a collaborative relationship with our nuclear partners in Europe. This doubtless will involve some mechanism of dispute resolution. Why do we not simply stick with what we have?
There has been much discussion in this House about the motivations of those who voted to leave the European Union. The truth is that none of us can ever fully know; all we know is that they voted to leave the EU. As my noble friend has pointed out, that does not mean leaving Euratom. To my knowledge, no noble Lord—even the most ardent Brexiteer in this House—has ever attempted to assert that anyone was driven to vote leave by their refusal to tolerate for a moment longer the continued involvement of the United Kingdom in Euratom. It is an obvious nonsense.
I do not want to leave the European Union. I think it is a disastrous move that will render this country permanently poorer. But if we are to leave, it would be good if we could do it in an intelligent manner, not in an ignorant, obdurate and absurd fusillade of bullets into feet. Nothing better encapsulates the wanton recklessness of the current approach to Brexit than this dogmatic determination to pull the UK out of Euratom. The public is looking on with increasing concern at the Government’s failure to grasp the details and grip the realities of Brexit. A change of direction on Euratom would at least be some small demonstration that the Government are capable of moving beyond slogans to a serious and considered approach to the most complex and important negotiations that any government has had to undertake for more than half a century.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for introducing this important debate and for the masterly way in which he did so. I declare an interest, like some of my colleagues, having worked in various aspects of atomic energy. I am chairman of the advisory committee of Tokamak Energy, which is a private sector fusion project.
Euratom has several vital roles which affect us—from timescales of a few hours, as we have been hearing in medical examples, to a long-term programme of dealing with nuclear waste of up to 100,000 years. Some people may remember the famous interchange between the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, and one of our Welsh colleagues here who asked if he really believed in transmutation. The point is that we have a very wide range of interests in working with Euratom—or whatever is done to continue that work.
The other aspect, of course, is fission. The noble Lord, Lord Teverson, rightly pointed out that fission power is a significant part of our power. Importantly, it is not just 20% of our power but continues when, for example, renewable power is unable to operate. Fission power is very important throughout the world.
The important point about Euratom is, of course, that it not only provides the fissile material for reactors but deals with nuclear waste. Nuclear waste brings us to the 100,000-year question. Are we going to put our waste in geological reserves, or are we going to deal with it in a long-term scientific way, destroying it so that it will have a short half-life? That is one of Euratom’s programmes. It is the only organisation in the world that is thinking in a long-term way about the different ways of dealing with nuclear waste.
Finally, Euratom has a very important role in co-ordinating the European contribution to the global project on fusion. Fusion energy, as you may know, uses water. There was the famous joke of the Giles cartoon in the 1950s, saying, “Are we going to run out of water?” because we were so effective at using this energy. We are not going to run out of water, but the fusion programme is very important and produces no waste. The fusion processes may be one way of getting rid of waste, of which we have a great deal from the fission process.
Euratom leads the global experiment, which started with JET, which is still at Culham. That will transfer into ITER, which is the international Tokamak in France. The UK plays a major role in these programmes, and how that will happen has to be negotiated. There was an article in the newspapers about the UK fusion programme.
Interestingly, we are now developing a private sector approach. If you are going to have a private sector operation, it needs a regulatory framework, and the way we work with Euratom should include that aspect. Also, as other noble Lords have said, Euratom is vital for the UK’s involvement in the International Atomic Energy Agency. We look forward to hearing from the Minister how that will continue.
My Lords, I have previously argued that the separate Euratom treaty gave the Government an opportunity and useful alternatives for transition by not triggering Article 50 simultaneously with Euratom. I know that left some institutional untidiness to sort out, but it would have meant both sides looking for the solution, and it is still an option. They are, however, two treaties, so another contingency plan could be to negotiate a Euratom exit independently, especially if there is no main agreement.
Today we are debating, among other things, continuing access to medical isotopes. My noble friend Lord Teverson has explained that the observatory role of the Euratom Supply Agency has been enlarged to cover supply of medical isotopes, with a particular objective of securing supply of molybdenum-99 and technetium-99 —the material used for some 700,000 diagnostic procedures per annum in the United Kingdom—across the EU. We obtain our supplies, as has been said, from several EU countries. We do not have our own reactor facilities or any plan for them, and this gives rise to various considerations.
First, will we still get equal treatment in EU supplies after Brexit, especially if there is an international shortage, which happened before, hence the observatory role? Secondly, past incidents such as the fire in the Channel Tunnel and disruption at Calais have hindered supplies. If we are not in the customs union, delays may be more common, and isotopes are the ultimate “just in time” materials because if they are not delivered promptly they cease to exist. A moly cow generator lasts only two weeks, with material halving every 66 hours, so long delivery times are wasteful. That is why we do not import from faraway places such as Australia or Korea. We are signatories to the international high-level group, but is that enough? Will we try to stay in the EU observatory to secure the EU supply?
Turning to the position paper on Euratom withdrawal, it says that we will negotiate a new voluntary offer agreement with the IAEA to replace those aspects done via Euratom. Has there already been an exchange of documents with the IAEA about the content of that agreement? Are there aspects other than replicating or taking over Euratom safeguarding procedures? Is the transfer of accounting straightforward, and what happens if ownership agreements with Euratom are unsuccessful?
On Monday, we debated the electricity market report from the Economic Affairs Committee, which gives prominence to security of supply—that was without any Brexit consideration. Given that a nuclear fleet is part of our energy future, have discussions started on replacing the nuclear co-operation agreements that presently run via Euratom, in particular with the United States, from where we get a lot of our supplies? Is there a break clause in the EDF contract if any nuclear technology is denied to the UK by France, Euratom or the Commission during the building of Hinkley Point C?
Finally, will the UK fund JET from 2018 to 2020 if the extension to Euratom funding that was being negotiated does not now happen? What would be the effect of not funding that extension on the UK position in international fusion technology?
My Lords, I live on the nexus of three constituencies, and nearby are Culham, Rutherford and the whole business at Harwell. Lots of people from abroad work there. They have families here and they will be greatly affected by any withdrawal.
The people at the top of the tree in all these things have interchangeable skills and will go and work elsewhere if they cannot work here on a collaborative basis. I underline this: everything in the university and at the research establishments is collaborative work and is funded by the EU on that basis. The free exchange of ideas and the free movement of these people are axiomatic to this continuing.
There is also a top-down element: the people working in this are in the shape of a pyramid. At the top, a few hundred are internationally acclaimed scientists. Going home from Didcot station the other night in a taxi, I asked the taxi driver, “What will happen to you if these institutions cease to exist?” He looked at me a bit funny and said, “Well, we will get a lot less work and a lot of us will lose our jobs”. That fact goes right down the supply chain. A thousand people work at Culham, but only some 150 are these top-flight people, and the employment of the rest of the people is in jeopardy.
Last night, I read the views of one of the three MPs who represent the area. A Conservative MP said:
“Last week, I began a campaign to urge the Government to retain our membership of Euratom after we leave the European Union … Retaining membership will best serve the national interest—as has been unequivocally stated by representatives of the UK nuclear industry—and I hope that ministers are listening to the genuine concerns being raised”.
Whether people like to admit it or not, there is increasing pressure—and it will come from Conservative Back-Benchers, who are threatened by issues such as leaving Euratom and the effect on employment in areas which depend on that, and a lot of other high-quality research.
My Lords, I note the silence on the Conservative Benches in this debate. I fear it is perhaps because no Conservative Peers are willing to defend the Government’s current position on this matter. I want to quote the Commons report on this, which states at paragraph 85:
“We are not aware of any substantive arguments in favour of leaving Euratom made either during the referendum campaign or afterwards. This outcome seems to be an unfortunate, and perhaps unforeseen, consequence of the Prime Minister’s decision to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”.
Liam Fox said on the “Today” programme this morning that our negotiations to join the WTO would be entirely straightforward, provided people did not put politics ahead of economics. He lacks a sense of self-irony to some extent, because it is quite clear that the politics of getting out from under the ECJ have driven the decision to leave Euratom. I was told this morning that, of all the cases on Euratom that the ECJ has considered, none has been decided against the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, the wickedness of the existence of the ECJ and the passionate feeling of Sir William Cash, Martin Howe QC and a small number of ultra-Europhobes who believe that common law is wonderful and Roman law is subversive have pushed the Prime Minister into making this a red line.
It is quite clear, however, that if we leave Euratom, the international nature of the nuclear industry means that some other form of legal arbitration in this as in so many other sectors would have to be used. Absolute sovereignty is not possible in the current global economy. That is one thing that the Prime Minister has to admit if we are to get through the current complex series of negotiations that we are about to undertake.
Timescale questions come in here. We leave in less than two years if we carry on without the process of transitional implementation. I see from the various reports that I have read that it takes five years to train a new nuclear inspector if we wish to set up our own nuclear safeguards agency. It takes a minimum of 10 years to build and get into operation a new research reactor, if we think that we are going to find radioisotopes from a British source.
I also note that the continued free movement of nuclear workers is vital. I am not sure what the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, would say about that, because not only would they be foreigners but they would bring in foreign wives and might have foreign children. There are real questions here which relate to some of the absurdities of our debate.
My noble friend Lady Bowles of Berkhamsted has talked about the difficulties of finding alternative sources of supply. We cannot go to China or to Australia; geographical propinquity matters.
Managing the many complex aspects of a global economy means that international regulation is necessary and that some form of legal arbitration is required. Getting out of Euratom because you are not prepared to accept that it is a regional organisation in which regional legal arbitration is needed seems an enormous mistake. The Nuclear Industry Association stated that,
“Euratom has played a key role in underpinning the UK’s nuclear industry since the country joined the EEC in 1973”.
Our companies benefit from the supply chain. Our researchers and research centres benefit enormously from the networks to which they belong. The Government are jeopardising all that; they need to think again.
My Lords, we owe quite a debt to the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for his earlier work on this and for today’s debate and the way in which he introduced it. However, I have to confess that I do not know how many such representations the Government have to receive before they realise that they have made a big mistake over Euratom, the unified European nuclear safety—the clue is in the word “safety”—and non-proliferation regime.
There have been protests—I have had them; I am sure that the Minister has had them, too—from the nuclear industry, the pharmaceutical industry, scientists, oncologists, the Bioindustry Association and the supply agency producing technetium-99m for cancer treatments and diagnosis. We have heard from specialists concerned about future supplies of medical isotopes, given that many of the reactors producing them are coming to the end of their lives. We have heard from a leading German politician, from the BMA, from the Institute of Physics, and umpteen warnings about a shortage of skilled staff and the loss of our world-leading fusion project and all the scientists and support staff who go with it.
I have just received a rather heartfelt plea from a certain Bob Kaufman, a retired diplomat who, in 1966 in our Paris embassy, drafted the language adopted by Washington and incorporated into the NPT which exempted the technically sophisticated Euratom safeguards from IAEA inspection procedures and therefore exerted political pressure on France under de Gaulle to accept Euratom rather than the American bilateral or IAEA safeguards. Mr Kaufman says:
“US-Euratom co-operation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy established a model for worldwide efforts begun by President Eisenhower and pursuant to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It would be a shame should Britain unnecessarily damage itself and one of Europe’s enduring and quietly successful entities”.
It is quietly successful. That is perhaps why, as the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said, few of us had heard of it until this happened.
There is cross-party concern on this, including from the noble Lord, Lord Hayward, who, though he cannot be here today, asked me to emphasise that concerns about the Government’s handling of this issue do not come solely from Opposition Benches. He, like others who spoke in the earlier debate, responded positively to the offer made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, on that occasion to meet Peers on this. I wrote to the noble and learned Lord about that on 17 March and got a reply on 22 June from the Minister in the Commons, who was keen to go ahead with such a meeting before the Summer Recess. That gives him about three hours to get us all together.
The question is why the Government are taking us out of Euratom despite all the evidence. As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said, we know that it is due to their willingness to allow their inexplicable hatred of the ECJ to colour every aspect of our withdrawal from the EU. In this case, that puts our lives, energy, safety and science at risk, just so that we can escape a court—one comprised of judges whose job is to interpret the law. We had been given to understand by something in the Guardian that the Government might seek to replicate the benefits of membership through some form of associate membership, but in the Commons the Minister appeared to dismiss this possibility and brushed aside the main concerns raised, especially as regards medical risks.
My noble friend Lord O’Neill had to leave for his plane, but he was going to say—I hope that I can use a minute to say it—that he is receiving treatment for prostate cancer at the moment. He reminded me that, although I will never get that, many in this House are likely to. He asked how long patients will have to wait for the security that their treatment will go ahead, given the fear of not having those nuclear materials. So my plea to the Minister is to act now, to get all those industries, the medics, scientists and everyone on board, and have a concerted effort to find a solution. It must be operative by March 2019. We cannot risk delays of vital nuclear material at ports because checks are being made. They are perishable as well as vital goods. We cannot risk being outside this world-leading nuclear co-operation system. I hope that the Minister will not allow some hang-up over the ECJ to blind the Government to a sensible way ahead. Together, I am sure we can work it out—but the Government must take a lead.
My Lords, I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, for bringing this debate to the House today. We discussed the implications for Euratom at the time of the Article 50 notice being given. At that time, it was explained that the machinery of the two treaties was inextricably intertwined and that it was not possible to give notice under Article 50 without also giving notice under Euratom. I am sure we may wish to debate that issue further on another day but that is the position as I understand it.
The noble Lord was quite right when he started the debate by saying that Euratom is hugely important yet it is a treaty that few people had ever heard of. However, the Government are certainly under no illusions about how important Euratom is. I hope that I shall pick up most of the questions raised by noble Lords in this debate while I wind up. In so far as I do not, I will write.
If they are “inextricably intertwined”, why did the letter have a specific, separate paragraph saying that, in addition to leaving the European Union, we wish to leave Euratom?
My Lords, I cannot answer that question standing here because I do not know. I am not briefed for a long and intricate legal discussion about how notice given under Article 50 related to Euratom. If it is all right with the noble Lord, I will write to him after the debate.
I should make clear to noble Lords that the Government regard the Euratom situation as hugely important and serious. At the beginning of my remarks, I should also be absolutely clear on three broad points. First, our aim is to maintain our mutually successful civil nuclear co-operation with Euratom. Secondly, we are committed to the highest standards of nuclear safety and support for the industry. Thirdly, we will continue to apply international standards on nuclear safeguards.
A number of noble Lords raised the issue of medical isotopes. There is a genuine difference of understanding here. We do not believe that leaving Euratom will have any adverse effect on the supply of medical radio-isotopes. Here, I was very sorry to hear about the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill. We will all think of him and hope he makes a good recovery over the summer. However, contrary to what has been in some newspapers that noble Lords may have read, medical radio-isotopes are not classed as special fissile material and are not subject to nuclear safeguards. Put frankly, you cannot build a nuclear weapon out of medical radioactive material. They are not part of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which is the driver of our nuclear safeguards regime.
In addition, Euratom places no restrictions on the export of medical isotopes to countries outside the EU. It is in everyone’s interests to ensure that there are no restrictions on the export of medical isotopes to countries outside the EU. These isotopes are not subject to Euratom supply agency contracts or to Euratom safeguards. This means that no special arrangements need to be put in place ahead of withdrawal. The UK’s ability to import medical isotopes from Europe and the rest of the world will not be affected.
Let me say a little more about safeguards as this is also, quite rightly, a subject with which noble Lords are concerned. It is clear that we need continuity and must avoid any break in our safeguards regime. The UK meets our safeguards standards through our membership of Euratom. The Government’s aim is clear: we want to maintain our mutually successful civil nuclear co-operation with Euratom. We can do so while establishing our own nuclear safeguards regime, using the body that already regulates nuclear security and safety: the Office for Nuclear Regulation. To do that, we need primary legislation.
That is why the Queen’s Speech on 21 June included our intention to take powers to set up a domestic nuclear safeguards regime, in partnership with the Office for Nuclear Regulation, to enable us to continue to meet international safeguards and nuclear non-proliferation obligations. Regardless of where Members of both Houses may stand on the UK’s future relationship with Euratom, I hope we can all agree that it is sensible and prudent to take such powers.
I know that your Lordships are keen to understand the Government’s approach to securing a successful negotiation outcome and continuity for our nuclear industry. I should like to set out here what the Government have been doing to further the UK’s interests. First, your Lordships will be aware that on 22 May, the Government formally entered EU exit negotiations with the European Commission. The EU negotiating directives, agreed by the European Council on 22 May, set out priority issues that have been identified by the EU as necessary for the orderly withdrawal of the UK. As part of these priority issues, the directives noted that a suitable agreement will need to be reached in relation to the ownership of “special fissile materials” and safeguards equipment in the UK which are currently the property of Euratom. The outcome of such an agreement, as with the rest of the UK’s future relationship with Euratom, will be subject to negotiations with the EU and Euratom.
The Government’s primary aim throughout these negotiations will be to maintain our mutually successful civil nuclear co-operation with Euratom and the rest of the world. We are strong supporters of Euratom and that is not going to change. Last Friday, the UK published a position paper setting out its objectives for a future relationship with Euratom. We are ready and confident that we can find common ground as officials enter this first phase of negotiations but, regardless of where we stand on the question of membership, associate membership, transition or departure from Euratom, we can agree that it is sensible and prudent to ensure that the Office for Nuclear Regulation has the power it needs for a domestic safeguards regime.
Secondly, we are keen to ensure that there is minimal disruption to civil nuclear trade and co-operation with non-European partners. To this end, the Government are negotiating with the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan so that the UK has appropriate nuclear co-operation agreements in place. Government officials have met with the Canadian Government and the Canadian regulators; we have also written to them at ministerial level. Canada is as keen as we are to reach a new agreement on bilateral terms. That is equally true of the USA, Japan and Australia, with all of whom we have started constructive discussions.
Let me reinforce this point because it may be that the House has heard or read that everything has to be done in a sequence that will take many years. I can tell the House that not only is it possible to do these things in parallel but we have already started to do so. We are preparing a domestic nuclear safeguards Bill; we are opening negotiations with the EU; we are talking to third countries about bilateral agreements; finally, of course, we are talking to the International Atomic Energy Agency. My officials have met with IAEA officials in Vienna and had constructive conversations about a new voluntary offer agreement, to replace the current one that we have by virtue of our Euratom membership.
There should be no question of any lack of support for Euratom. The decision to leave was taken at the time of triggering Article 50. Noble Lords will be aware that the triggering of Article 50 notified the Commission of the UK’s intention to leave the European Union and to leave Euratom, as the EU and Euratom are uniquely and legally joined. Leaving one means leaving the other. That is an issue we addressed earlier but I will write to the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, about it. The UK has been at the forefront on nuclear non-proliferation for 60 years and we have been members of Euratom since 1973. I have no doubt that we can bring all these discussions to a satisfactory conclusion.
A number of noble Lords raised issues of research, in particular that done at Culham. In last week’s Westminster Hall debate my fellow Minister, the honourable Member for Watford, Richard Harrington, set out that the Government are pursuing research and development opportunities with our European counterparts. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State announced on 27 June the underwriting of the UK’s share of the EU JET fusion project. This demonstrates our commitment to continued nuclear research and development collaboration, and in particular to the world-leading Culham Centre for Fusion Energy located near Oxford. The UK’s participation in JET and the ITER project in France supports around 1,300 jobs, which includes 600 highly skilled positions. UK engineering and technology firms have indirectly benefited, as we heard from a noble Lord earlier, from around €500 million-worth of ITER construction contracts.
In conclusion, I make it clear that the Government are determined to continue a constructive, collaborative relationship with Euratom. The UK is a great supporter of Euratom and will continue to be so. This Government remain absolutely committed to the highest standards of nuclear safety and to supporting the nuclear industry. We will achieve this through continued application of international standards on nuclear safeguards, new legislation and new agreements with our international partners.