Impacts of Brexit on the UK Nuclear Industry

Thomas Rogers
February 5, 2019

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018


Fig. 1: The Hinkley Point nuclear reactor. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nuclear power represents an essential, highly-reliable source of the UKs base load power generation. [1] As of 2017, the UK operates 15 reactors domestically, which in total produce 21% of the nations electricity. [2] The nuclear energy sector pumps over 1bn into the economy and employs over 65,000 people in the UK. [3] This critical piece of the UK's energy infrastructure and the economic benefits it provides are at risk of becoming defunct as a result of the UKs decision to leave the EU.

The Threat Posed by Brexit

Because the UK does not produce the materials necessary to create nuclear fuel, it must import fuel for its reactors from abroad. [4] Presently, the import of this material is governed by Euratom, the organization responsible for nuclear oversight for the whole of the EU. This organization is highly acclaimed by all participating members and the UK has no explicit desire to leave the organization. Additionally, the treaties relating to Euratom exist separate from those directly uniting the EU. [1] However, Euratom requires its members to be under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, which UK Prime Minister Theresa May has demanded the UK withdraw from as part of their separation from the EU. [4]

Should the UK withdraw from Euratom, its existing trade agreements would be dissolved, and the country would be left with no way to legally import fuel for its reactors. Experts estimate that within two years, UK reactors would run out of fuel, leaving them in the unenviable position of having a fully functioning fleet of power stations without any fuel to operate them. [4] To reiterate, this would result in the loss of over one-fifth of the UKs current energy generation.

Additional Issues: Foreign Investment and Joint Research Projects

In addition to dissolving trade agreements, the UK faces complex challenges surrounding existing nuclear-related joint economic ventures and research projects with other EU nations. The UK owns one-third of the primary European uranium-enrichment company Urenco. Additionally, the UK is relying heavily on foreign investment to fund the development of its newest reactors as part of the Hinkley Point C project, which is pictured above in Fig. 1. Specifically, EDF Energy, which is largely owned by the French government, and Areva, also a majority state-owned French company, are leading the project and supplying the necessary technology, respectively. [5] Given the additional uncertainty and tension created by Brexit, it is unlikely the French will continue with their investment in the already troubled Hinkley Point C project. [6]

Among EU nations, the UK is considered a crucial partner in ongoing nuclear research projects. [1] The projects are funded collectively by the EU and the departure of the UK puts the future of these projects in jeopardy. One such project is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), which is the largest fusion experiment of its kind. Even more pressing is the Joint European Torus (JET) plasma physics project. While this project is funded by the EU, it is located in Oxfordshire, UK. When the UK leaves the EU, they will become solely responsible for funding the project if it is to continue at all. [7]

The UK's Solution

Britain's primary goal is to negotiate the continuation of its existing trade arrangements with the EU as part of its departure. In case of the very possible scenario in which no deal is reached, the UK has taken considerable steps toward securing the future of their nuclear industry independent of the EU. First and foremost, they have restored their sovereign accreditation with the IAEA, which will take over regulatory control from Euratom. [1] Additionally, the UK has signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with the US, providing access to nuclear fuel for its reactors, and is in further talks with Japan, Canada, and Australia. [3] While the UK has made significant progress, there is still much to be done and the official date for Brexit looms only three months away.


Ultimately, the UK is prepared to provide for the future of its nuclear industry should a deal be reached with the EU or not. While non-negligible risks still exist, it is extremely unlikely that the government will not be able to fuel its nuclear reactors. However, the government has made no arrangements for handling the future of Urenco, the potential withdrawal of foreign investment in the Hinkley Point C project, or any of the joint research projects which the UK participates in. The potential breakdown of these joint economic and research projects represents the greatest threat posed by Brexit to the UKs nuclear industry.

© Thomas Rogers. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] A. Evans-Pritchard, "An Atomic Success Story Amid All the Doomsday Chatter on Brexit," The Telegraph, 24 Aug 18.

[2] L. Tarhuni, "UK Nuclear Power," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2017.

[3] C. Mason, "What Does the UK's Nuclear Future Look Like?," BBC News, 5 Oct 18.

[4] B. Kentish, "Brexit Will Cause an 'Alarming Mess' For UK Nuclear Power, Scientists Warn," The Independent, 9 Jul 17.

[5] M. Chou, "Hinkley Point C," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2017.

[6] R. Burnett, "Brexit Could Mean Cancellation of Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station, Government Adviser Says," The Independent, 28 Jun 16.

[7] "Brexit Uncertainty Threatens Fusion-Energy Research," Nature 557, 611 (2018).