Radiation Applications

Radioisotope Supply / EU’s Strong Position Under Threat From ‘Foreign Dependencies’

By David Dalton
24 October 2023

Continuing reliance on Russian imports could have significant impact, says report

EU’s Strong Position Under Threat From ‘Foreign Dependencies’
Medical radioisotopes are used in diagnostic imaging techniques to help identify critical conditions such as heart disease and cancer. Courtesy NEA

“Foreign dependencies” exist in several steps of the medical radioisotope supply chain, threatening the EU’s strong position in production and endangering the development and application of nuclear medicine products and procedures, the annual report of the Euratom Supply Agency (ESA) says.

ESA, the body responsible for the supervision of uranium supply and demand in the EU, warned that an increasing variety and volume of enriched isotopes will be needed for radionuclide production to support the development of new treatments in the fight against cancer.

In addition, enriched isotopes currently sourced partly from Russia will be needed in the longer term to develop non-fission alternatives to the most used radionuclide in nuclear medicine, technetium-99m (Tc-99m), which will remain essential in the next few decades.

The continuing EU dependence on Russian imports could therefore have “a significant impact on member states’ ability to meet existing patient needs and support the development of future cancer treatments”.

The ESA said one of the key conditions for the uninterrupted supply of medical radioisotopes is the availability of nuclear materials such as high-assay low-enriched uranium (Haleu) for the production of irradiation targets and fuel for research reactors.

Haleu is not produced in the EU but is imported from the US and Russia. Uncertainties exist regarding both sources – Russia being “a high-risk partner” and US stocks estimated to last until 2035-2040, depending on consumption of the existing stockpile.

EU Needs Security Of Haleu Supply

If Europe cannot ensure the provision of Haleu after 2035, the production of the most frequently used medical radioisotopes is at risk.

An ESA working group recently identified options for achieving different levels of security of Haleu supply for the EU. These ranged from continuing to buy it from the US and Russia, an ESA Haleu bank with a 10-year reserve, to autonomy thanks to European production.

“Depending on the option selected, a set of actions, commitments and financing would be necessary from the EU, its member states, industries and end users,” the ESA said.

“The European capacity for enrichment of source materials and stable isotopes needs strengthening, which is only possible with investment.”

“Clear political decisions” are needed at both EU and member state level to address Haleu future supply vulnerabilities. The EU, national authorities, industry and users should explore all options to ensure EU autonomy and the continued Haleu supply to users for medical and research purposes.

EU production could be established by taking advantage of the domestic industry, its capacities, knowhow and technology.

* Most elements are found as mixtures of several isotopes. For certain applications in industry, medicine, and science, samples enriched in one particular isotope are needed. Many methods have been developed to separate the isotopes of an element from one another. Each method is based on some difference – sometimes a very slight one – between the physical or chemical properties of the isotopes of an element.

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