Australian reactor ramps up production of crucial isotope

The recent closure of a Canadian reactor has threatened the supply chain security for molybdenum-99, prompting the Australian Nuclear Science Technology Organization (ANSTO) in Sydney to drastically ramp up its production of the tracer beginning in 2017.

Molybdenum-99 is the precursor isotope to technetium-99, the most commonly used radiotracer in medical procedures. Used more than 16 million times a year, a global shortage of the isotope can have drastic effects, forcing clinicians to use sub-optimal substitute scans or simply forgoing the exam and making diagnoses on other criteria.

ANSTO will increase production at the Open Pool Australian Lightwater (OPAL) Reactor from 5.55 million doses a year to more than 10 million, filling a quarter of the global demand. While the closing of the Canadian reactor will reduce global supply by 40 percent, the boost from the OPAL reactor should secure the supply through 2020, according to a report published by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD).

“In 2016, capacity should be sufficient to manage adverse events, but that mitigation capability would reduce in 2017, from when there was a clear need for additional processing capacity,” the authors wrote. “If the planned additional capacity is successfully introduced in 2017, the supply through 2020 should also be secure. However, the supply would require careful planning and a high degree of supply chain cooperation for the foreseeable future.”

This initiative is part of a $168.8 million investment in ANSTO from the Australian government, earmarked for expanding molybdenum production and building a waste treatment plant. The production facility is planned to be completed in 2017, and the waste treatment plant is expected to decrease OPAL reactor waste by up to 90 percent.

"What we are doing here will deliver a good public health outcome for Australians and people from around the globe, and a strong economic upside for Australia," ANSTO chief executive Adi Paterson told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Other efforts to bolster the supply chain include efforts from the National Nuclear Security Administration to promote U.S.-based production, partnering with domestic medical technology firms to accelerate development of isotope production facilities. Current partners include NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes and SHINE Medical Technologies, who recently relocated to Janesville, Wisconsin.