Feeds

Medical isotope scarcity as Dutch reactor goes titsup

Terrorism fears lead to 'perfect storm'

Intelligent flash storage arrays

A "looming crisis" faces the world of nuclear medicine, as unexpected shutdowns at nuclear reactors producing vital medical isotopes are seriously affecting world supplies, according to reports. Experts in the field are calling for concerted international action to stop such events happening again.

All five of the world's main medical isotope producing reactors shut down last week for unrelated reasons. Some of the outages were planned, but others weren't. In particular, the High Flux Reactor facility at Petten in the Netherlands went down unexpectedly. This is seen as particularly serious, as all other facilities producing Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) - the most widely-used isotope in nuclear medicine - were already offline.

According to the Society for Nuclear Medicine (SNM), "there is a distinct possibility that worldwide production of Mo-99 could completely cease for a prolonged period, with devastating results". The problem is especially serious as Mo-99 can't be stored, having a half-life of just 66 hours: it has to be produced as required.

"This could be described as a perfect storm in isotope availability," said Robert W Atcher, emerging-medical-tech chief at the US Los Alamos national lab and SNM president.

"A combination of anticipated outages at other production reactors, coupled with unanticipated shutdowns, is simply devastating... Following the shutdown of Canada's Chalk River facility late last year, we simply cannot afford to sit and wait as the situation continues to worsen."

Isotopes such as Mo-99 are used in diagnostic techniques, where they are taken into the body by injection or ingestion and absorbed by certain body cells and tissues. Technicians can then track the cells' movement by the trace radioactivity the isotopes give off. The isotopes are seen as essential tools against various kinds of cancer, nervous diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and cardiac complaints.

The Chalk River plant in Canada - which supplies about half the world's medical isotope needs - was eventually reopened on government orders following safety disputes last year, but is currently undergoing a planned shutdown. It's expected to re-open this week, but reports indicate that there will still be shortages of supply due to the unexpected outage at Petten.

"We are going to try produce enough to narrow the gap, but certainly, we won't be able to produce the global demand," a Chalk River spokesman told the Vancouver Sun, following the news from the Netherlands.

According to the SNM, efforts to reduce proliferation of nuclear weapons and/or "to deter terrorism" are hindering moves to stabilise the world medical isotope supply. Worries over the use of highly-enriched uranium, which can be of use in nuclear bomb programmes, have meant that the US is completely dependent on imported isotopes. Medical radioisotopes are also often seen as likely materials for production of so-called "dirty bombs" by terrorists; devices which would not cause a nuclear explosion but would scatter radioactive material by other means. Though the actual threat to life and health from medical-supplies-based radioactivity attacks is seen by most analysts as slim to nonexistent, it's argued that such tactics could cause serious panic and alarm.

All this has led to many barriers being placed in the path of new isotope production capacity. Though the world's existing facilities do try to coordinate their maintenance efforts, there's sometimes insufficient capacity to deal with the unexpected - and international cooperation isn't sufficiently robust.

"This is a serious problem," said Michael Graham, SNM President-Elect. "Now, more than ever, it is critical that the United States, along with other countries, take the lead on recommending alternatives to ensure consistent access to mission-critical isotopes, which are essential to hospitals and their ability to provide patient care." ®

Remote control for virtualized desktops

More from The Register

next story
Rosetta probot drilling DENIED: Philae has its 'LEG in the AIR'
NOT best position for scientific fulfillment
'Yes, yes... YES!' Philae lands on COMET 67P
Plucky probot aces landing on high-speed space rock - emotional scenes in Darmstadt
THERE it is! Philae comet lander FOUND in EXISTING Rosetta PICS
Crumb? Pixel? ALIEN? Better, it's a comet-catcher!
SEX BEAST SEALS may be egging each other on to ATTACK PENGUINS
Boffin: 'I think the behaviour is increasing in frequency'
HUMAN DNA 'will be FOUND ON MOON' – rocking boffin Brian Cox
Crowdfund plan to stimulate Blighty's space programme
Post-pub nosh neckfiller: The MIGHTY Scotch egg
Off to the boozer? This delicacy might help mitigate the effects
I'M SO SORRY, sobs Rosetta Brit boffin in 'sexist' sexy shirt storm
'He is just being himself' says proud mum of larger-than-life physicist
NASA launches new climate model at SC14
75 days of supercomputing later ...
prev story

Whitepapers

Why and how to choose the right cloud vendor
The benefits of cloud-based storage in your processes. Eliminate onsite, disk-based backup and archiving in favor of cloud-based data protection.
Getting started with customer-focused identity management
Learn why identity is a fundamental requirement to digital growth, and how without it there is no way to identify and engage customers in a meaningful way.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Reducing the cost and complexity of web vulnerability management
How using vulnerability assessments to identify exploitable weaknesses and take corrective action can reduce the risk of hackers finding your site and attacking it.
Saudi Petroleum chooses Tegile storage solution
A storage solution that addresses company growth and performance for business-critical applications of caseware archive and search along with other key operational systems.