IAEA seeks long-term solution to isotope supply crisis
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is aiming to secure the long-term supply of a medical isotope used for the diagnosis and treatment of patients suffering from heart disease or cancer.

"It´s the right time to kill two birds with one stone. We can improve the reliability of supply and eliminate the proliferation risk presented by highly-enriched uranium [HEU]," said Pablo Adelfang, chief of the IAEA´s research reactor section.

The recent supply crisis began in late 2007 and cut supply by 20 to 70 percent. It was caused by repeated temporary shutdowns for age-related maintenance of two research reactors that produce the bulk of the global supply of molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), the parent isotope of technetium-99m (Tc-99m), which is used in nearly 30 million medical imaging procedures annually.

"The two major reactors are now back in operation. The crisis period is over, but that doesn´t mean that all the issues are resolved," said Natesan Ramamoorthy, director of the IAEA´s division of physical and chemical sciences.

In 2005 the agency started a coordinated research project (CRP) designed to develop techniques for small-scale indigenous production of Mo-99 using low-enriched uranium, or another non-HEU technology. More than half the 15 state project members have since moved these technologies beyond the laboratory stage, according to IAEA.

With IAEA advisory support, Egypt is completing a production facility that is scheduled to enter operation in 2011. Also, Chile, Libya, Poland and Romania are exploring domestic supply projects. Kazakhstan completed work to produce Mo-99 using an alternative, non-fission-based process and is in the final stage of approvals before using the product domestically. In addition, Brazil and Malaysia both recently joined the CRP and are undertaking their own feasibility studies.

The CRP will end in 2011. "Looking ahead, hopefully the CRP will transition into an IAEA inter-regional technical cooperation project, in which proven Mo-99 production technology is deployed by member states," said Ed Bradley, an IAEA nuclear engineer with the research reactor section. If approved, this technical cooperation project would move technologies from the laboratory trials to small- to medium-scale production that builds a domestic Mo-99 supply source, using commercially available technologies and equipment.

Despite the progress, uncertainties remain. "New reactors are only a long-term solution; a medium-term solution is feasible, however, by using both existing production and diversifying the sources of supply," Ramamoorthy said.

The IAEA has further information provided on its website.