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Call for More Action to Ensure Supply of Medical Isotopes

At Global Workshop, Participants from 16 Countries Outline Needed Measures

Nuclear imaging systems

Nuclear imaging systems that depend on medical isotopes are widely used for diagnosing illness. (Photo: D. Calma/IAEA)

More action is needed to help ensure the reliable supply of medical isotopes widely used for health care and treatment. That´s the conclusion of representatives from 16 countries at an international workshop recently organized by the IAEA and Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) in Paris, France.

The workshop brought together representatives of government, industry, and the nuclear medicine community to discuss global solutions concerning the on-going supply of medical isotopes. Eighty participants from 16 countries and several international organizations participated.

The meeting was initiated at the request of Canada to address challenges to the reliable supply of technetium‑99m (Tc-99m), a key medical isotope derived from molybdenum-99 (Mo-99). Tc-99m is used in an estimated 30 million medical procedures every year, with four of every five diagnostic imaging procedures in nuclear medicine using the isotope. Only a limited number of nuclear reactors in five countries - Belgium, Canada, France, Netherlands and South Africa - produce the isotope. Supply issues have surfaced following unexpected production shortfalls.

The workshop chairman, NEA Director General Luis Echávarri, said in a concluding report that the international community had become "increasingly concerned" about shortages of the isotope. "Currently 95 percent of the world´s needs are supplied by only five reactors, all of them over 40 years old," he said. "Outages of these reactors and of the downstream processing facilities have recently resulted in significant shortages of Tc-99m."

The issue of medical isotope supply shortages stands to be a recurring theme. Ed Bradley, a nuclear engineer from the IAEA Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Materials Section, says, "It will be several years before we see any real results from the construction of new facilities or modification of existing facilities."

Workshop participants expect the vulnerability of the isotope supply chain to persist, if not to increase, for several years because of the age and increasing maintenance requirements of the major production reactors. They identified a number of measures to enhance short-term supply security. They also requested the NEA to consider establishing a working group involving the IAEA to carry forward the workshop agenda, with special attention to economic aspects.

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