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Government's weak response over Euratom is worrying the medical sector

Philip Hunt on why the government must think again about leaving Euratom, given the impact on both safety and healthcare

Almost under the radar, the government is trying to rush a piece of legislation through Parliament designed for the softest of Brexit departures from Euratom. This agency oversees countries with nuclear facilities to ensure that material used for civil purposes, for example in power stations, is not being diverted into weapons programmes.

Following the perverse decision of the Prime Minister to withdraw from Euratom because of the never used jurisdiction of the ECJ, the government has tasked the UK’s own regulator,  the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) to take over these vital nuclear safeguarding responsibilities.

No doubt because Euratom is doing such a good job, the government rather ironically wants the ONR to stick to the same standards! The problem however, is that there’s no way they can reach those standards by March 2019 because it needs to recruit and training up to 40 inspectors from scratch. As ONR Deputy Chief Inspector, Dr Mina Golshan told the Commons Bill Committee: “we will not be able to replicate Euratom standards on day one. That is unrealistic.”

So, the government’s weak response is to accept lower standards of frequency and intensity of inspections to meet the less exacting requirements of the International Atomic Energy Authority. But with an aspiration over time to return to Euratom standards.

The decision is also causing considerable worries in the medical world. Euratom currently facilitates a free trade of nuclear material across the EU, which ensures a secure and consistent supply of radioisotopes. These are vital for diagnosing particular diseases via nuclear medicine imaging techniques, courtesy of radiology, palliative relief of pain and biochemical analysis in clinical pathology.

The UK imports these radioisotopes around the world, but mainly from EU countries such as France, Holland and the Czech Republic. They have a very short life, degrade quickly and cannot be stockpiled. Indeed, it was in response to the 2012 shortage crisis that the European Observatory on the supply of Medical Radioisotopes was established. This facilitates the sharing of vital information between member states, industry suppliers and the medical profession. 

Operating outside of Euratom would remove the UK’s guarantee of consistent and timely access to medical radioisotopes, with consequent delays in patient treatment. It would also weaken collaborative links between the UK and EU on nuclear-medicine research.

Pressed at our Second Reading of the Nuclear Safeguarding Bill, the BEIS Minister Lord Henley acknowledged that changes to customs arrangements after Brexit could affect and disrupt the supply of radioisotopes. While the government says it is working to minimise such risks, there is not much confidence to be had from the current state of the wider negotiations.

That is why Labour has tabled a frontbench amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill on retaining our membership of Euratom. Failing that, the government must negotiate the very closest of alignments with the agency that guarantees both our very high standards on nuclear safeguards and the vital exchange of materials essential to healthcare.

Lord Philip Hunt of Kings Heath is a member of Labour’s Health team in the House of Lords. He tweets @LordPhilofBrum

Published 19th February 2018

This article first appeared on the PoliticsHome 'Central Lobby' blog

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