Brexit May Threaten Cancer Treatments and Hinkley Point Plant

  • Head of nuclear lobby warns against the U.K. leaving Euratom
  • Shipments of radiotherapy treatments, reactor parts at risk

With Brexit the U.K. will pull out of the little-known European Atomic Energy Community and with that come some unintended consequences. Experts say it could threaten everything from cancer treatments to the integrity of nuclear power plants.

Prime Minister Theresa May is preparing to trigger Britain’s exit from the European Union by the end of March and the draft law allowing her to do so also includes provisions to exit Euratom

That sets the clock ticking for two years of talks, at the end of which Britain will lose the advantages it gains from membership of the organization, which stewards nuclear research and cooperation between EU members. Euratom was established in 1957, alongside the far more famous Treaty of Rome that laid the foundations for greater unity.

Yet Euratom bears a lot of responsibility, governing everything from the transport of radioactive materials to access to parts for nuclear reactors. The danger in a speedy divorce where details fall by the wayside could have far-reaching effects.

Killing Cancer

Molybdenum, used in radiotherapy treatments for cancer, is a good example. Right now there is a system in place that ensures it can be safely moved between the U.K. and the rest of the EU. But once the U.K. is out of Euratom those safeguards disappear.

If ministers don’t create a similar arrangement, the U.K. won’t be able to import such cancer drugs, according to Fiona Rayment, a director at the National Nuclear Laboratory.

“If you take something like molybdenum, it’s used to kill the cancerous tumor,” Rayment said, adding that the country doesn’t produce its own molybdenum. “You’ve got to be able to transport it in a fast enough time-frame for it to get from the source through to where it’s going to be used, before it turns into” something different.

Tom Greatrex, a former Labour Party lawmaker who’s now chief executive officer of the Nuclear Industry Association, also stressed the need for continuity for the nuclear industry.

“This becomes inevitably part of a much wider negotiating process,” Greatrex said in London. “To avoid a cliff edge or disorderly exit, what is imperative is to have a transition to make sure that there isn’t a gap between what exists now through the Euratom framework and what we need for the future.”

Hinkley Point

The imports of parts for existing and planned new nuclear reactors, as well as access to the fuel needed for Electricite de France’s planned new plant at Hinkley Point in southwest England, are also at risk, according to Rayment.

Experts agreed on the importance of sharing research with fellow Euratom members, including in the area of nuclear fusion, which seeks to create nuclear power by joining atomic nuclei, rather than splitting atoms.

Steve Cowley, Chapman’s predecessor as UKAEA chief, said leaving Euratom imperils an extension to the U.K.’s Joint European Torus, or JET project, at Culham, near Oxford, “the only place in the world where you can do fusion.”

Through the work at Culham, and a successor project to JET in France, the first reactors producing electricity from nuclear fusion could be up and running by the the middle of the century, Cowley said.

“It’s the only large facility on British soil that’s funded with international money,” Cowley said in an interview. “So leaving Euratom would rid Britain of one of the jewels of great British research.”

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