Nuclear reactor shutdown threatens supply of radioactive material for medical imaging

The recent closure of a Canadian nuclear reactor could diminish the global supply of a radioactive material used in medical imaging tests, according to Inside Science.

The National Research Universal reactor in Chalk River, Ontario, shut down in October over financial and security issues. The closure caused a 19 percent reduction in the global production of molybdenum-99 — a material commonly used to make the medical radioactive tracer technetium-99.

Technetium-99m is the most popular medical isotope, used in about 80 percent of the imaging procedures involving radioactive tracers, according to the report. The substance is largely used for imaging blood flow to diagnose coronary artery disease, as well as bone and brain scans to detect certain types of cancer, according to S. James Adelstein, MD, PhD, emeritus professor of medical biophysics at HarvardMedicalSchool in Boston and chair of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. In September, the group released a report detailing the possibility of "severe shortages" of the radioactive substance that could impact medical care.

The 59-year-old NRU reactor represented one of only seven research reactors that produce 95 percent of the world's molybdenum-99 supply. None of the reactors — or any of the five facilities used to process the substance — are located in the U.S., although the country accounts for half the global demand of molybdenum-99.

"Although there are plans from both existing international suppliers and potential domestic suppliers to fill the expected supply gap from Canada, the committee is concerned that any delays in bringing additional supplies of molybdenum-99 to the market would increase the risks of substantial shortages," said Dr. Adelstein in the report.

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