Australian isotopes to compensate for closure of Canadian reactor

15 November 2016

Australia said on 11 November that it will increase its capacity to supply more nuclear medicine to local hospitals and to the rest of the world to prevent the closure of the ageing National Research Universal (NRU) in Canada from causing “a serious global shortfall, potentially putting patients at risk”, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (Ansto) said. The NRU ended routine production of nuclear medicine operations earlier in November after 60 years of operation, Ansto said.

At times, the NRU had met up to 40% of global demand, which is currently around 30-40m doses a year. Ansto, based at Lucas Heights near Sydney, said it has two projects, valued at about AUD$170m ($128m), which are “helping respond to the issue today and in the longer term”. The first is an upgrade of Ansto’s existing nuclear medicine processing facility, enabling it to almost double capacity. The second is a new nuclear medicine production facility that will come online in 2017, and will boost production to around 10m doses a year once it reaches full capacity.

Australia’s $460m multi-purpose OPAL reactor at Sydney’s Lucas Heights, built by Argentina, was opened in 2007 and is the only reactor in the world that is both capable of supporting export-scale production of nuclear medicine, and that was purpose-built to run on low enriched uranium fuel and target plates.

ANSTO CEO, Dr Adi Paterson said: “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.” As an added benefit, the project includes a Synroc facility that will reduce waste volumes by up to 90% compared with conventional treatment options such as cementation, he added.

In October, a committee of the US National Academy of Sciences warned in a report of a “substantial” – more than 50% – likelihood of severe molybdenum-99 and technetium-99m shortages after the reactor at Canada’s Chalk River ceases production, especially as planned capacity expansions by other suppliers are not expected to be finished until 2017 or 2018. Faced with international concerns about an isotope shortfall, the Canadian government agreed to keep the NRU reactor in a “hot” standby mode until its closes for good at the end of March, 2018. A spokesperson for the federal Natural Resources Department confirmed the government is prepared to produce isotopes from the NRU as a “supplier of last resort” if there is a significant global shortage.

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