Radioisotope production in research reactors

Radioisotopes are isotopes of a chemical element. They have an excess of energy, which they release in the form of radiation. They can occur naturally or be produced artificially, mainly in research reactors and accelerators. Radioisotopes are used in various fields, including nuclear medicine, industry, agriculture and research.

The production of radioisotopes involves several interrelated activities, including the fabrication of targets; their irradiation; transportation of the irradiated targets to processing facilities; radiochemical processing or encapsulation in sealed sources; quality control; and transportation to end users.

Radioisotope production in reactors is based on neutron capture in a target material, either by activation or generation of radioisotopes from fission of the target material by bombardment with thermal neutrons. Research reactors and accelerators are also used to develop new radioisotopes for diagnostics and therapy in nuclear medicine, non-destructive testing and radiotracer industrial applications, as well as for radiotracer studies in scientific research. 

Radiopharmaceuticals, such as those extracted from radioisotope generators, are substances that contain a radioisotope and have the ability to perform the role of marker in medical diagnostic or therapeutic procedures. Eighty per cent of all diagnostic medical scans worldwide rely on the availability of the radioisotope molybdenum-99 (99Mo) and its daughter product, Technetium-99m (99mTc), which are presently only produced at research reactors. 

Globally, the number of medical procedures involving the use of radioisotopes is growing, with an increasing emphasis on radionuclide therapy using radiopharmaceuticals for the treatment of cancer. These socioeconomic benefits, as well as the effective quality control processes and cleaner environments provided by supporting technology, strengthen the national, regional and international capabilities of research reactor facilities.

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