Whose Plutonium is it anyway?

Update: This is now article 83 in the latest version of the Withdrawal Agreement. The issue remains.

There are a bunch of nuclear power stations in the UK, all using lots of nice science to boil a big kettle and make a steam engine work (most of our nukes now heat carbon dioxide instead of water but the principle is the same). The bit that makes the kettle boil is “special fissile material”. If you handle it carefully it can make a lot of steam, which can drive a turbine, which drives a generator, making electricity that keeps the lights on. If you don’t handle the special fissile material carefully then things can get a little too hot and explode. It is kinda important that this stuff is managed properly.

One of the measures introduced by the Euratom community is that ownership of special fissile materials is vested in the community. It is all jointly owned by the Euratom community. Individual operators can buy the title to hold, and consume the material but they can’t own it. The Euratom community also concludes all the contracts relating to special fissile materials.

On Brexit day we will not be a member of the Euratom community, but there will be a fair bit of material in the UK. The proposal from the EU in the draft withdrawal agreement is that ownership will be transferred to whoever is holding it at the time.

This is problematic. All of our currently operating reactors and the one in construction are operated by EDF Energy – a subsidiary of Électricité de France which is majority owned by the French state. As you can see from article 79 of the withdrawal agreement part 3 kicks in. We are not taking back control of something very important here. Why are the brexiters not furious about this?

So, this is not very brexity, but we have to update our legislation to reflect this. It is being done by a statutory instrument using the Henry 8th powers The Special Fissile Materials (Right of Use and Consumption) (EU Exit) Regulations 2018 this was proposed for the negative procedure. This means that the government was planning to stick it on that big desk in the middle of the commons for a couple of months, in case anyone wants to look at it, and then it becomes law with no discussion unless someone notices it and motions to reject it. There is an alternative way of doing statutory instruments called the affirmative procedure, which means MPs give it fractionally more scrutiny and have to actually vote on it in both houses. Because of this idiotic retained law concept there is now a committee that checks the stream of statutory instruments and “sifts” them, flipping the interesting ones over to the affirmative procedure.

They were considering the important plutonium and enriched uranium statutory instrument a few weeks ago, along with three other SIs. I wrote to the committee expressing my concerns and advice that the nukes one should get extra scrutiny:

This SI should be read alongside article 79 of the withdrawal agreement. That article is not yet in green and agreed (to my knowledge) so that in itself should be a red flag against waving through this SI.

Article 79 of the withdrawal agreement states that the ownership of the special fissile materials will change on exit day from being the property of the Euratom Community to being the property of the persons or undertakings that had unlimited right of use and consumption of those materials. This will gift ownership of the uranium and plutonium to the operators of our power stations including those operated by EDF Energy. This brings us to 79(3) which preserves the rights of the Euratom community for undertakings established in a member state (e.g. France). This means we gift ownership of the materials to EDF and hand control of them to Euratom.
It would seem that a better approach would be to transfer ownership from the Euratom Community to the Crown. The Crown as a concept is our universal placeholder for things that shouldn’t be subject to normal rules of ownership – we should treat special fissile materials like very hot swans.
Ownership of special fissile materials is of public concern, it shouldn’t be waved through without scrutiny, and if the plan is to gift the stuff to the French state operator that really doesn’t sound like something that should be done without parliamentary approval.

Within an hour I had a reply:

Thank you very much for your comments on this SI. We will draw these to the Committee’s attention.

Guess what happened next? Go on, guess!

This week we have recommended The Cat and Dog Fur (Control of Import, Export and Placing on the Market)(EU Exit) Regulations 2018 for further debate in the House. Full report will be published this Friday

so there we have it. I have also written to the corresponding Lords committee, and my MP, but I doubt it will make any difference. Nobody cares that we are not taking back control of our nuclear materials.

As concerned citizens we really should be watching the statutory instruments flying out and writing to the sifting committee and our MPs to make sure they do their jobs properly, there are a lot of important subjects being rewritten and many decisions are being taken in the effort to just rectify laws so they work. The depressing thing is that my experience so far is that it is utterly futile. The report from the committee explains some technicality about why the cat and dog thing is of political and legal importance, but I have no clue why giving away ownership and control of our special fissile materials is not important.

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[…] that is fine, we can do that, if we can give our Uranium to France we can create a new type of company. What really struck me is the statement in the explanatory memo […]