A small number of research reactors in operation, instances of denial of shipments, and an ageing skilled workforce were some of the issues debated in Vienna at a roundtable discussion on the global shortage of medical radioisotopes.
Experts also considered the issues of fuel conversion from high enriched uranium (HEU) to low enriched uranium (LEU) for this type of facilities, how to optimize regulatory processes at a national level, and the overall economic aspect of radioisotope production.
During the three-hour session chaired by the IAEA´s Philip Jamet, Director of the Division of Nuclear Installation Safety, panellists acknowledged that a narrow production base of facilities has led to the current global shortage of molybdenum 99 (often referred to as "moly-99"), the parent radioisotope from which other medical isotopes are derived.
"There is a need for a wider geographically-distributed production base, and the IAEA is well positioned to push for such a development," said Janice Dunn Lee, Deputy Director General of the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (NEA/OECD).
However, panellists agreed that this would be unlikely to happen unless there is a concerted action involving Governments as well as the private sector.
Piet Müskens, Director of the Netherlands´ Department for Nuclear Safety, Security and Safeguards, spoke of the need to have a process in place to help decide on the balance between safety requirements and societal issues, i.e. the availability of radioisotopes for medical purposes.
Jean-Christophe Niel, Director General of France´s Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN), warned the audience against the temptation to go for what he called the "easy solution" to the current crisis, i.e. extend reactors life.
Paul Gray, Vice President of Global Logistics at MDS Nordion, pointed to the issue of denial of shipments and more generally of the inefficient transportation of medical radioisotopes, and lauded the initiative spearheaded by the International Steering Committee on Denials of Shipment, which established national focal points to help with this issue.
"So far, 66 Member States have nominated one, but there is a need for more states to take similar initiatives," he said.
Other panellists included Hassan Abou Yehia who heads the IAEA´s Research Reactor Safety Section, Daniel Amaya, from Argentina´s INVAP, and Natesan Ramamoorthy, Director of the IAEA´s Division of Physical and Chemical Sciences.
The Moly-99 roundtable was held in conjunction with the 53rd IAEA General Conference.
Production of isotopes is limited to a few facilities, which underscores the importance of timely, efficient and safe international shipments to hospitals and industries. Some radioisotopes, such as iodine-123 - used for heart and thyroid imaging - have a half-life of only hours. Consequently, any interruption to their delivery can threaten the medical care of patients.