Q&A: Nuke med expert differentiates between Japan crisis, U.S. initiatives
Pelindaba Nuclear Research Centre, South Africa
The current crisis of the Japanese nuclear reactors as a result of the natural disasters should have “a fairly small impact on the U.S. attempts to develop medical isotopes domestically,” Robert W. Atcher, PhD, MBA, leader of the medical isotope task force and past-president of the Society of Nuclear Medicine (SNM), explained in an interview.

Over the past few years, the global nuclear medicine community has been plagued with shortages of medical radioisotopes, which is particularly detrimental for the oft-used molybdenum-99—the parent isotope of technetium-99m (Tc-99m), the most widely utilized radioisotope in the world for molecular and nuclear diagnostic imaging studies, in particular for cardiac and oncologic conditions. Therefore, many initiatives within the U.S. are currently seeking a safe means to produce the isotopes domestically.

What makes the Japanese nuclear reactor crisis situation unique?
The fifth largest earthquake in history with a 9.0 magnitude that struck Japan on March 11, and the subsequent massive tsunami—while tremendously tragic and devastating—is only likely to occur very rarely. The Japanese government had constructed a well founded infrastructure for the prospect of an earthquake, as that did very little damage in and of itself. However, the tsunami knocked out the generators, which are used to cool the reactors in the event of an electrical outage. Also, the crisis is ongoing, so we don’t know what the end result will be. Therefore, we can’t truly predict how this situation will ultimately impact nuclear power as a whole, and more specifically, medical isotope production.

What is the state of nuclear power in the U.S.?
In the U.S., we don’t currently use nuclear power plants that are used to generate electricity for the purposes of medical isotope production. However, the U.S. Department of Energy’s [DoE] National Nuclear Security Agency [NNSA] is funding a project for GE [General Electric] Hitachi Nuclear Energy to build a reactor for this purpose. The goal of the project is to use a domestic nuclear power reactor to generate domestic medical isotopes. One advantage is that we have multiple reactors of this design, whereas the current situation is that we use a single reactor in a country for medical isotope production. Therefore, this approach provides a backup capability that does not exist within the global medical isotope infrastructure.

The GE Hitachi project is one of four that are funded by a NNSA initiative that requires that 50 percent of the reactor-produced medical isotopes used in the U.S., should be created domestically by 2013. In my opinion, there is nothing that has happened in Japan that would prevent that project from moving forward. However, this type of crisis causes people to be more hesitant about nuclear power in general.

Also, GE Hitachi designed and built the nuclear reactors at the Japanese sites in crisis, and it is my understanding that they are similar in design to those being investigated for medical isotope production. Regardless, the reactors under consideration for this project in the U.S. are inland and not subject to a tsunami. Additionally, there is no guarantee that the GE Hitachi venture, while funded by the NNSA, is going to be successful before the 2013 deadline.

How does the U.S. compare with other countries with the use of isotope production?
Globally, we use research reactors for isotope production. They are one-tenth or one-twentieth the size of the reactors that are being used to make electricity. By and large, these reactors are mostly built for a variety of applications other than electricity production, and are much smaller in terms of size and power compared with those to make electricity. It’s really comparing apples and oranges. 

Of concern to SNM right now is that the vast majority of the reactor-produced radioisotopes we use in the U.S. are produced in foreign countries. So natural disasters like the volcanoes in Iceland prevented shipments of medical isotopes from Europe getting to the U.S.

Are there any other ongoing projects in the U.S. for medical isotope production?
Covidien and Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services Group are seeking to create low-enriched uranium-based molybdenum-99 generator production at Covidien’s manufacturing facility in Maryland Heights, Mo. The project is seeking to develop a smaller reactor of about 200 kilowatts, compared with the larger nuclear power reactors that generate electricity at 1,000 megawatts. The other projects approved in the U.S. use completely different technologies to develop medical isotopes, and do not depend on a nuclear reactor. Therefore, these projects should move forward as planned.