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Chalk River Nuclear Reactor Back Making Medical Isotopes

Chalk River workersMolybdenum-99 isotopes are being harvested again at the Chalk River Laboratory in Canada ending a year-long shortage that has affected medical treatment worldwide.

Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), which operates the nuclear reactor at Chalk River, announced on August 18, 2010 that the reactor is operating on high power and producing medical isotopes.

Molybdenum-99 (Moly-99) is packed into so-called “generators”  that deliver a supply of Technetium-99m, a key isotope used in medical imaging.  Each generator has a life of about two weeks, so additional Moly-99 is needed regularly.  It cannot be stored.

Before its shutdown last year due to a heavy water leak, the Chalk River nuclear reactor produced about a third of  the world’s medical isotopes, including half of those used in the United States.  But the reactor is now 53 years old and what was expected to be a short-term problem in May of 2009 turned into a major shutdown lasting more than a year.

Medical isotopes (radioisotopes) are very small quantities of radioactive material which can be injected into patients to diagnose or treat illnesses such as cancer or heart disease.  Millions of procedures using medical isotopes are performed worldwide annually, and 70 to 80 percent of them use Technetium-99, derived from Molybdenum-99, produced in nuclear reactors like the one at Chalk River.

Almost the entire supply of Moly-99 is produced in five reactors outside the United States, whose average age of 45 years puts them at risk for maintenance problems and shutdowns.

The Society of Nuclear Medicine has led an effort to create resources for medical isotopes in the United States.  While SNM is “cautiously optimistic” that Chalk River coming back online will provide short-term relief to the most pressing concerns for Moly-99, they point out that is not a “magic bullet” and will not provide a real solution to the isotope crisis.

Dominique Delbeke, M.D., Ph.D., president of SNM said,

Creating and maintaining a sustainable delivery of radioisotopes is one of SNM’s most critical priorities. We continue to work to advocate for a domestic supply of Mo-99 in the U.S. so that nuclear medicine physicians and technologists have a reliable supply of radioisotopes to perform critical imaging tests that patients need for high-quality care.

Fact Facts on the Worldwide Medical Isotope Crisis from SNM.

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