UK Government plans threatening nuclear and radiation safety laws in a “Brexit bonfire” have provoked resistance from regulators and trade unionists, opposition from Scottish ministers and alarm from campaigners.
The Cabinet Office has published a list of more than 2,400 European Union (EU) laws which are under review as part of the government’s bid to scrap them. They include ten key regulations designed to protect the public and workers from nuclear accidents and radiation leaks.
The UK Office for Nuclear Regulation, which oversees safety at civil and military nuclear sites, told The Ferret it was trying “to preserve the legislative framework” to meet the “highest international standards”.
The trade union, Prospect, which represents scientists and engineers in the nuclear industry, accused UK ministers of “trying to weaken or dismantle a regulatory framework that has served the UK well over many decades.”
The Scottish Government attacked Westminster for “rolling back 47 years of protections in a rush to impose a deregulated race to the bottom”.
Campaigners are worried by the dangers of “watering down” nuclear safety law, and demanding tougher legal protections.
A bill to remove “retained EU law” was introduced to the UK parliament by the former business minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, in September 2022. It contains a “sunset” clause requiring all remaining EU law to be repealed or assimilated by the end of 2023, though this can be extended to 2026.
Amongst the laws under threat is the 2019 Radiation (Emergency Preparedness and Public Information) Regulations which compel councils and companies to draw up emergency plans to deal with nuclear accidents. According to UK Government guidance in 2015, the regulations are “key” to ensuring that the public is “properly protected”.
Three sets of regulations aimed at protecting workers and the public from the hazards of radiation are also up for review. One “lays down basic safety standards for protection against the dangers arising from exposure to ionising radiation”, the government said.
Other laws on the UK Government list cover “maximum permitted levels” of radioactivity in food after a nuclear emergency; imports of radioactively contaminated food following the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011 and the Chernobyl disaster in 1986; and the safety of decommissioning nuclear plants.
‘Tearing up’ nuclear regulations
The Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), which regulates the Faslane nuclear base and six other sites in Scotland, is understood to be taking the threat to nuclear safety laws “very seriously”.
An ONR spokesperson told The Ferret: “We are in discussions with the government to preserve the legislative framework that allows us to hold the nuclear sector to account consistent with the highest international standards.”
According to the veteran nuclear critic, Pete Roche, this meant that ONR was resisting the UK Government’s plans. “Reading between the lines it looks as though the ONR is planning to fight any proposals to make drastic changes to nuclear regulation,” he said.
“In recent meetings I have been involved in, ONR representatives have stressed the need to uphold the highest international standards. I can only hope I am not being overly optimistic and that they stick to their guns.”
The nuclear trade union, Prospect, argued that the existing regulatory framework worked well at protecting workers and communities. This was vital as old nuclear plants were being decommissioned and new ones built.
“Perhaps the government should focus on ensuring that existing regulators are properly resourced to do this important work rather than trying to weaken or dismantle a regulatory framework that has served the UK well over many decades,” said senior deputy general secretary, Sue Ferns.
“Tearing up existing regulations for the sake of purportedly ‘taking back control’ does nothing but introduce uncertainty,” she added. “Nuclear is an international industry, there is no value in seeking to craft UK specific legislative variants just for the sake of it.”
The Scottish Government has urged the Scottish Parliament to withhold consent for the “Brexit bonfire” bill. “Ministers fundamentally oppose the Retained EU Law Bill,” said a spokesperson.
“This bill puts at risk the high standards people have come to expect from EU membership, rolling back 47 years of protections in a rush to impose a deregulated race to the bottom.”
The 50-strong group of Nuclear-Free Local Authorities was “gravely concerned” about the “threat to water down legislation which provides the public or our environment with protection from the operational or legacy risks posed by civil nuclear power.”
The group’s chair, David Blackburn, a green councillor from Leeds, said: “If European regulations providing protection are to be removed, we will press government ministers to instead enact equivalent, or preferably stronger, laws into UK domestic legislation.”
The environmental campaigner and former director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, Dr Richard Dixon, thought that the EU gave the public and workers “vital protections” against radiation risks. “No backsliding at all can be allowed,” he said.
“This has never been more important with the prospect of damage to nuclear reactors or even the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Protection of the same strength or better needs to be put in place.”
The UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy did not respond to requests to comment. “There is no place for EU law concepts in our statute book,” stated the UK Government’s website.
“Government departments and the devolved administrations will determine which retained EU law can expire, and which needs to be preserved and incorporated into domestic law.”
The EU law bill is the “culmination” of the 2016 Brexit vote and is designed to help make the UK the “best regulated economy in the world”, the government added. “By ending the special status of retained EU Law, we will reclaim the sovereignty of parliament.”
Cover image of Torness nuclear power station in East Lothian thanks to iStock/Philip Silverman. This story was published in tandem with The Herald.