Government should offer assurances of post-Brexit medical radioisotopes supply

15 January 2018

The Government needs to explain how it will ensure that, post-Brexit, there is a secure supply of medical radioisotopes, used to detect and stage a range of cancers. So says the European Scrutiny Committee as it publishes its analysis of four separate documents published by the European Commission relating to the work of the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom).

European Commission warns about fragility of radioisotope supply

The Committee's concern comes in the light of the serious shortage of radioisotopes from 200 to 2010 due to the prolonged shutdown of supply reactors in Canada and the Netherlands. The principal material, Molybdenum-99, is not produced in the UK and its decay product (Technetium-99m) is ultimately used for 90% of medical interventions involving radioisotopes. Molybdenum cannot be stockpiled as it has a half-life of only 66 hours.

The security of supply of isotopes is currently fulfilled by the Euratom Supply Agency. Euratom provides the basis for the regulation of civilian nuclear activity, implements a system of safeguards to control the use of nuclear materials and controls the supply of fissile materials within EU member states. The UK's future relationship with Euratom has emerged as a significant issue in the negotiations between the UK and the EU on EU withdrawal.

The European Commission warns that the supply of medical radioisotopes is becoming more fragile and requires a more coordinated approach. The European Scrutiny Committee seeks assurance from the Government and an explanation of how the UK will develop its own policy.

Member's comment

Dr Philippa Whitford MP, who is a Member of the European Scrutiny Committee, said:

"I was working as a Breast Cancer surgeon during the Technetium shortage which lasted well over a year. During that time we were faced with having to ration bone scans to only the most urgent or worrying cases.

In addition it held back the roll out of Sentinel Node Biopsy technique across the UK which has since allowed much less destructive surgery to be used when staging the spread of breast cancer. With all of these reactors nearing the end of their working lives, the Euratom Supply Agency plays an important role in avoiding such a shortage in the future."

Report highlights

The Committee report also highlights the following areas:

  • Radioactive waste and spent fuel;
  • Nuclear energy investment
  • EU financial contribution to the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project

Turning to future arrangements, the Prime Minister indicated in her Florence speech that she would like there to be a post-Brexit implementation period of around two years. The Committee is looking for confirmation that it is the Government's negotiating objective that the framework of Euratom rules and regulations should continue to apply to the UK for the duration of an implementation period, including Nuclear Co-operation Agreements with non-Euratom countries.

The Committee also asks the Government what the impact will be of the post-Brexit absence of the UK from the Euratom Atomic Questions Working Party, one of the main policy-making forums in this area, assuming that the UK would be applying Euratom rules and regulations during a withdrawal period.

Further information

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