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#710-711 - June 4, 2010

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Medical radioisotopes
LAKA Foundation
Full issue

The vast majority of the public thinks that research reactors, such as the High Flux Reactor (HFR) in Petten, the Netherlands, are essential for the supply of medical radioisotopes. And indeed these nuclear reactors are currently producing the vast majority of the isotopes. The nuclear industries like to maintain this widespread misunderstanding to justify their right to exist. A brief look in the history of nuclear medicine learns that all medical radioisotopes were originally manufactured by another type of production.

On May 22, a research report was published on the alternatives for reactor-based production of medical isotopes: "Medical Radioisotopes Production Without A Nuclear Reactor", written by Henk van der Keur of the Laka Foundation. The report tries to find an answer to the key question: Is it possible to ban the use of research reactors for the production of medical radioisotopes? It will make clear that the nuclear industry is using the production of medical isotopes as public relation for nuclear research reactors. The production of medical isotopes is seen as the sole purpose of the planned replacement of the Dutch High-Flux reactor by the Pallas-reactor, although 50% percent of reactor-time will be used for nuclear related research. All medical-isotopes now produced in reactors can be produced alternatively or can be replaced by isotopes which can be produced other than in a nuclear reactor.

Isotopes are naturally occurring or are artificially made. The first ones are often stable, while the last ones are unstable or radioactive. There have been characterized about 1600 isotopes, either stable or unstable (radioactive). Radioactive isotopes or radioisotopes have numerous applications in medicine, agriculture, industry and fundamental research. Though most isotopes have no practical value, dozens of isotopes have valuable applications. At present there are up to 200 radioisotopes used on a regular basis, and most of them are produced artificially.

Until 2007 there was an almost uninterrupted supply of cheap subsidized reactor-produced isotopes, there was no need to search for alternatives. Since January 2007, there has been at least six periods of serious disruption to supplies. Only in Canada these disruptions were followed by serious debates on how to secure the domestic supply of radiopharmaceuticals in the nearby future and the future. The development of accelerator-based production of medical isotopes has always been thwarted in favor of the production with nuclear reactors. Policy-makers are opting for research reactors, because they offer large scale production of medical isotopes. The continued disruptions, however, have proven that the reactor method is not safe and secure. And why should the isotopes production be dependent on a few worldwide monopolists? Cyclotrons offer the possibility to produce hospital-based medical isotopes.