BEIS Committee calls on government to retain close association with EU atomic community after Brexit, as Michael Gove releases letter on environmental governance regime
With the next stage of Brexit negotiations set to grapple with a raft of environmental issues, the complexity of unpicking the UK from EU green agencies and legislation was again laid bare this week in a series of developments.
The controversial decision by the government to quit the Euratom regime as part of the Brexit process will come under the microscope today when the BEIS Committee of MPs publishes its long awaited report on post-Brexit nuclear arrangements.
The MPS will say the UK should stay as closely associated as possible with the European Atomic Energy Community after Brexit in order to minimise the risk of disruption to the domestic nuclear industry's research and trade.
The report today by the BEIS Committee will urge the government to retain a close association with the EU nuclear body, including its delivery of existing nuclear safeguards requirements in the UK, arguing that a 'no deal' option would be "highly risky" in the absence of any transitional arrangements.
When signing Article 50 back in March this year, the UK government signalled its intention to exit the Euratom nuclear body, much to the concern of the domestic nuclear industry which has warned it could undermine efforts to build new clean power capacity and meet the UK's climate goals.
But government insiders argued that the separate decision to end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over the UK meant there was little choice but to quit Euratom.
Today's report counters that without nuclear cooperation agreements and an international safeguards regime - currently delivered by Euratom - the government will not be able to guarantee access to materials essential to the running of domestic nuclear power stations, which currently provide around 21 per cent of UK electricity.
Moreover, the BEIS Committee believes the benefits of the Euratom regime should also not be put at risk by sticking strictly to the government's 'red line' on the ending UK jurisdiction of the ECJ after Brexit.
The report follows plans announced by the government last week to drive development of both additional small and large nuclear projects in the UK, and comes ahead of a planned Parliamentary debate on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill this week.
Labour MP Rachel Reeves, chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee, said that throughout the Committee's inquiry not a single contributor was in favour of the UK leaving the Euratom community. Yet the UK now faced the prospect of having to set up its own nuclear safeguarding regime in its place "which falls short of Euratom standards", she added.
"The government should, as a matter of urgency, be seeking to retain as close as possible an association with Euratom and secure its ongoing delivery of existing safeguards requirements in the UK," said Reeves. "Any delay will increase investment in contingency arrangements which may ultimately not be required."
She called for an extended transitional period for the civil nuclear industry, or the continuation of Euratom support, in order to ensure standards are maintained and risks to trade are reduced. "The industry needs more clarity about our future safeguards regime and what regulatory equivalence will actually mean in practice," Reeves explained.
BEIS was considering BusinessGreen's request for comment at the time of going to press.
The report comes a day after Environment Secretary Michael Gove wrote to MPs regarding his plans for green governance, trade and chemicals regulations after the UK leaves the EU, having recently committed to setting up a new independent, statutory body to safeguard England's environment.
In the letter, Gove writes that leaving the EU provides a "unique opportunity to design a set of policies to drive environmental improvement with a powerful and permanent impact, tailored to the needs of our country".
Defra will consult "as widely as possible" on the specific powers and scope of the green governance body, Gove said, as there are "significant questions to answer" about how the new body should operate.
But he signalled that the new green watchdog should only cover England and environmental areas that are not devolved, adding that UK regional governments will have the option of either making use of the new body "as they already do with the Climate Change Committee" or set up their own equivalents.
"A new independent, statutory body and a strong statement of environmental principles will ensure that outside the EU, the UK becomes the world-leading curator of the most precious asset of all: our planet," Gove's letter states.
Gove also said the continued validity of business registrations to REACH chemicals regulations was one of the government's Brexit negotiation objectives, and he urged companies to ensure they are compliant with regulatory requirements in the EU while the UK remains a member.
And, on environmental legal principles, Gove said the government would be consulting on a new policy statement regarding those principles that will apply in the UK after Brexit, but that it would be important to gather a wide range of views before coming to any decisions.
"I want to reassure the Committee that we want to ensure that economic growth, development and environmental protection go hand in hand, and it is in everyone's interest to avoid any 'race to the bottom'." Gove writes. "We will have the opportunity to promote our values around the globe in the areas that are of the greatest importance to us as a country."
The intervention came as the Chemicals Industries Association reportedly wrote to Gove last week urging him to ensure the UK remains part of the REACH regime and the European Chemicals Agency. The chemicals sector has repeatedly warned that exiting REACH could result in major trade barriers with the EU as chemicals firms are forced to separately register chemicals for import to the bloc. The group told Gove exiting REACH - as would occur under a no deal scenario - would "make a mockery" of claims Brexit would lead to regulatory simplification.
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