US report endorses Australia’s use of low-enriched uranium for nuclear medicine production

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Today, the United States (US) National Academies of Science released international recommendations to produce life-saving nuclear medicines using low enriched uranium (LEU) targets and eliminate high enriched uranium (HEU) use to help reduce world-wide proliferation risks. The recommendations endorse ANSTO’s use of LEU targets in nuclear medicine production and LEU fuel in its OPAL reactor.

Incoming US president Barack Obama committed in his pre-election strategy for nuclear security to phase out HEU from civilian use internationally. This is because HEU can be used in nuclear weapon production and why there are proliferation concerns.

ANSTO’s radiopharmaceuticals General Manager, Mr Ian Turner, said the recommendations were significant for ANSTO. “ANSTO will soon be producing nuclear medicines using LEU,” he advised. “ANSTO also anticipates demand for its LEU-based products is likely to increase because other suppliers will take time to convert to using the preferred LEU.

“ANSTO is now in the process of testing a new expanded Mo-99 production facility and anticipates it will commence full scale commercial production by the middle of the year,” he said. “Importation of Mo-99 has been required for the past year or so but this will cease once production is in full swing. ANSTO can then join other major suppliers, Canada, The Netherlands, Belgium and South Africa.

“Australia will be the only supplier providing nuclear medicines using LEU not only at home but around the world. “For Australians the importance of local LEU Mo-99 production will mean a reliable domestic supply and a stable home market,” he said.

The most widely produced nuclear medicine is Technetium-99m (Tc-99m), used in 80 per cent of nuclear medicine procedures. This is the decay product of Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) which is produced in a research reactor (not power reactor). When used, Tc-99m is attached to a specific molecule and injected into the patient. The nuclear medicine then travels to the site of interest where the molecule is prolific, here a special camera picks up gamma rays from the radioactive
material and produces a medical image for diagnostic and treatment use.

The demand for nuclear medicines around the world is also increasing and the supply chain was described by the National Academies of Science as “fragile”. However the report does not believe conversion to LEU will make the situation worse by slowing down production.

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