A WORLD-leading Oxfordshire science facility fears it could lose hundreds of top researchers after the government announced it would pull out of a European nuclear-co-operation body.
The decision to leave Euratom, which provides 60 per cent of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy’s funding, was denounced as ‘bonkers’ by its former director, while Prof Brian Cox, the physicist and broadcaster, called it ‘terrifically stupid’. There are also concerns it will trigger an exodus of talent from the centre near Abingdon – which carries out experiments into producing fusion energy – with researchers uncertain about their future.
The announcement the UK would quit Euratom, which caught the scientific community by surprise, emerged in a footnote of the Brexit Bill going through Parliament. Ministers claim the organisation is ‘uniquely joined’ to the European Union and cannot be untangled from Britain’s impending exit. The current director of the Culham centre, Professor Ian Chapman, said its activities were guaranteed until at least the end of 2018 but admitted it now faced a ‘great period of uncertainty’.
He said: “We know fusion is highly regarded and the government recognises we have world-leading capabilities in the field. They want to continue work at Culham and there is also a willingness in Brussels to find a way through this.
“But obviously that does not help staff at the moment, because there is still this cloud of uncertainty over us, so the sooner we have a resolution the better.”
Prof Chapman added it was ‘plausible’ the UK could become an associate member of Euratom or simply decide to operate the Culham centre independently.
He added: “These are soluble problems but there are no quick solutions. These things cannot be rushed in the nuclear world and must be done in a careful way.
“I cannot say more at this stage but we are in close discussions with ministers about the way forward.”
The manner of the government’s announcement was described as ‘stupid’ by Prof Chapman’s predecessor, Prof Steve Cowley, who said
it had created panic. Prof Cowley now president of Corpus Christi College, said: “Everyone wants research at Culham to continue to, so I cannot believe this won’t be resolved somehow in a positive way. But you have a bunch of people working there – some of the most extraordinary people – whose livelihoods depend on it and are highly mobile.”
“What the government has done is sowed uncertainty among those people and that is the big danger here.”
Of the decision to leave Euratom, he said: “It is bonkers.”
His concerns were echoed by Ed Vaizey, MP for Wantage, who told the House of Commons he had been “inundated with countless emails from people who now believe their job is going”.
He said neither local MPs or the Culham centre had been notified in advance of the decision to leave Euratom.
Mr Vaizey added: “I am so angry with the government on the position about Euratom.”
“If ministers are are going to make an announcements like that in explanatory notes of a bill, at least they could alert relevant MPs beforehand and at least they could provide my constituents with a definitive statement about what the future of European cooperation on civil nuclear engineering is going to be... I hope they will provide me with some material to give my constituents who are literally worried about their jobs, who have bought houses in this country and want to know what the future is.”
Research being carried out at the Culham centre, established in 1965, is aimed at developing a nuclear fusion reactor to produce energy the same way as the sun.
It is seen as the ‘holy grail’ of power production because it produces large amounts of clean energy from relatively small amounts of fuel.