- Cancer patients needing uranium to help
diagnose their tumours have been refused help by the Ministry of Defence,
which says it needs all its stocks for nuclear weapons.
- A formal request for help from the Departments
of Health and Trade and Industry has been turned down and the patients
have been advised to look abroad for supplies since there is no longer
any production in Britain.
- Highly enriched uranium (HEU), along
with plutonium, provides the explosive power of nuclear bombs but also
plays a vital role in the detection and treatment of cancer.
- With the end of the cold war and the
decommissioning of weapons there was believed to be a military surplus
of HEU, which is heavier than lead and costs £60,000 a pound.
- Yesterday, the Ministry of Defence said
it had no uranium to spare but could give no explanation since all the
information was classified. It is understood that the ministry has advised
that the Department of Health should apply to the US which might have surplus
- HEU is the only substance presently licensed
in both Europe and America for medical "targets", the starting
point for making kits for medical diagnosis and treatment of cancer because
its does not give rise to harmful radioactive byproducts.
- The approach to the Ministry of Defence
came after a series of events earlier this year brought the "scarcity,
and even future availability" of HEU for medical purposes into sharp
- These included the Anglo-American operation
to import weapons-grade uranium from the former Soviet republic of Georgia
to the Atomic Energy Authority's complex at Dounreay in Scotland, which
is Britain's main civilian centre for handling this grade of nuclear material.
- The subsequent parliamentary select committee
inquiry, coupled with fears expressed this summer by the Government's Health
and Safety Executive, led to temporary closure of all nuclear materials
manufacturing and recycling facilities at Dounreay.
- The shortage of HEU is a result of the
US government's attempts to end world trade. It fears that HEU could fall
into the hands of terrorist groups or rogue governments to make crude atomic
weapons. The Georgian uranium, however, will be used for medical purposes.
The Dounreay complex is one of the main producers for hospitals throughout
Europe but until now it has relied on recycling uranium from civilian reactors.
- In 1997, seven million diagnoses were
made in European hospitals using this type of treatment. HEU is the medical
profession's favoured choice because the radioactive substance decays within
six hours, long enough for a medical examination, but short enough to allow
the patient to leave hospital directly afterwards.
- Dounreay's director, Roy Nelson, who
had earlier publicly drawn attention to the shortage, would not comment
on the MoD's decision.
- The nuclear fuel processing, recycling
and manufacturing facilities at Dounreay are still closed. The Atomic Energy
Authority has come up with a programme to upgrade them and the Science
Minister, John Battle, has pledged public funding to ensure that the requirements
of the Health and Safety Executive are met in full. The executive is considering
a request from Dounreay to re-start its medical manufacture at an early
- The DTI also refused to comment beyond
saying it was hoping the UK Atomic Energy Authority would help it make
a case for release of HEU to the Americans.