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UK sets out nuclear research plans after rejecting Euratom membership

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The UK has set out plans to invest up to ?650 million to support domestic nuclear fusion research programmes running until 2027, after confirming earlier this week that it would not join the EU’s Euratom nuclear energy research scheme.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government confirmed the plans on Thursday (7 September), adding that further details on the domestic alternative programmes would be set out in the coming weeks.

The move comes despite the agreement between the UK and European Commission this week to join the European Union’s satellite programme for Earth observation, Copernicus, and Horizon Europe with a rebate of its financial contribution to compensate for the years it has missed, according to a Thursday (7 September) announcement.

The agreement on Horizon Europe, which follows months of haggling over London’s annual contributions, which the European Commission now estimates will be almost EUR2.6 billion per year, also includes “a new automatic clawback that protects the UK as participation recovers from the effects of the last two and a half years. It means the UK will be compensated should UK scientists receive significantly less money than the UK puts into the programme.”

Like Horizon Europe, UK membership of Euratom was also envisaged in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU which came into force in 2021. Association status to the schemes was then blocked by the Commission for the duration of the dispute between London and Brussels over the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. The row over the protocol was ended with the signing of the Windsor Framework in February.

In a letter sent in April, Andrew Bowie, minister for nuclear and networks conceded that “the lack of progress on Euratom Research & Training association is frustrating, especially given the importance of fusion”.

In recent weeks, the attitude of UK ministers hardened against Euratom membership after deciding that its industry’s long absence from the programmes could not be reversed. The EU’s budget for the Euratom Research and Training Programme is worth EUR1.38 billion between 2021 and 2025.

Even so, the UK starts the process of establishing a domestic alternative to Euratom from a weaker place than with Horizon Europe, for which it had already set out a ‘bold, ambitious alternative’ known as Pioneer, which had been set to receive the same amount of funding as the UK would have paid to associate to Horizon.

While the UK’s accession to Horizon and Copernicus has been widely welcomed by the scientific research and academic community, opposition politicians have lamented the damage to those sectors caused by the delays.

“I think there’s a sense that we’ve lost two years, that this should have happened two years ago and that’s a big loss,” Labour party leader Keir Starmer said on Thursday.

[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]

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