UK Politics

Red warnings for post-Brexit nuclear safeguards

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Britain risks missing a vital deadline for establishing full post-Brexit nuclear safeguards, according to Government documents obtained by Sky News.

Late delivery of an IT system and difficulty recruiting qualified inspectors are blamed in the leaked reports.

There are five "high level risks" Britain needs to address before Brexit, identified by the UK's Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR).

They were all categorised as "red" on a red, amber, green alert scale in an internal "Risk Register".

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Problems include "late delivery or ineffective" new IT systems to track nuclear material.

Recruitment difficulties and a lack of training for inspectors are also cited, as are failures to arrange the "comprehensive handover" of hardware and equipment from the EU agency Euratom.

On top of the issues, concerns were also raised about long-term funding of the new nuclear regulator.

Warnings in a risk register on Brexit nuclear preparedness
Image: Recruitment, funding and equipment were marked 'red' on the risk register

The document says that a key milestone to start building a new IT system was already "irretrievably lost".

Testing of this mandatory system, currently carried out at European level, will only now begin in summer at the earliest.

It must be up and running by the end of the year, to run in parallel with the European system before theoretically being ready to take over in March 2019.

The aim is to set up an internationally-required system to safeguard nuclear material, so that civil and military nuclear material is separated.

Red warnings on a nuclear risk register
Image: The risk register carried a list of 'red' warnings

Progress towards recruiting 25 nuclear safeguards inspectors has also been slow.

The Risk Register assessed as red the "High Level Risk" that the ONR is unable to train and warrant an adequate number of new inspectors in time.

Separately, a failure to "recruit enough people with the right skills to deliver a UK State System of Accountancy for control of nuclear material to meet international obligations by 2019" was also a red risk.

Office for Nuclear Regulation
Image: The ONR said 'good progress' had been made

The document lists seven ways that risk can be mitigated, including "redefined person spec" and that standards may be lowered to plug the skills gap, suggesting there are insufficiently trained personnel.

The Business Department did say in a recent update to parliament that 13 inspectors and trainee inspectors had been recruited.

Parliamentary sources have raised some doubt that they could be trained in time, claiming it takes five years to train a safeguards inspector fully.

Sign inside a nuclear factory
Image: Under a no deal Brexit, the legal basis of nuclear trade would disappear

The key underlying risk of not being prepared for Brexit day is identified by the Risk Register as a lack of secure funding.

Subsequently, the Business Department has released £8m in two tranches to fund this activity, but industry sources are still highly concerned that the systems will not be in place.

But if Britain quits the EU without a deal and IT systems are not ready, the legal basis of trade in nuclear material, parts and expertise would disappear.

Nuclear operators have warned of shutdowns to nuclear power stations, and the transfer of crucial medical isotopes being blocked in such a scenario.

Most industry sources are pinning their hopes on an agreed transition within the Euratom system, as outlined in March by the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier and UK Brexit Secretary David Davis.

Rachel Reeves, chair of the Commons' influential business select committee, said the Government's plans in such a short time-scale were "going to be incredibly challenging, if not impossible".

She told Sky News: "We rely on nuclear energy to light our homes, to keep our economy going.

Rachel Reeves MP talks about her friend Jo Cox
Image: Ms Reeves said nuclear cooperation did not have to mean betraying Leave voters

"And if there is any risk at all that leaving Euratom is going to leave us with a less robust regulatory regime or not being able to import and export the things we need to keep the lights on, the Government need to face into that and put in place proper robust plans to do so."

She added: "I think we can have cooperation in the area of nuclear energy that doesn't defy the will of the people."

Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the Nuclear Industries Association, also told Sky News: "If no deal means no transition then this is a very exacting time frame to try and do everything by.

"I'm not at all confident that we can get everything done by March 2019."

The ONR is meeting with the International Atomic Energy Agency in June and September to decide if the new UK organisation can be a certified nuclear regulator.

A spokesperson for the ONR told Sky News: "Good progress has been made on the procurement of the new IT system and on the recruitment and training of new safeguards inspectors.

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"We are confident that these will be in place to ensure we meet international obligations for day one of exiting Euratom."

The Business Department has been contacted for comment.

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