IAEA chief witnesses progress of Australian medicine plant

08 August 2016

Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, today visited a new nuclear medicine manufacturing plant in Australia that will soon produce international-scale supplies of molybdenum-99 (Mo-99). Ansto - Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization – briefed Amano on the status of construction of the plant at its Lucas Heights site near Sydney.

The plant is expected to produce Mo-99 at a capacity to supply 25% of global demand for nuclear medicine by the end of 2017. The $168.8 million project is in the final phases of construction, having received its engine room of ten hot cells, and by the end of next year aim to reach full scale production of 10 million doses a year.

"The combination of the nearly complete $168.8 million Ansto Nuclear Medicine Project and the Opal research reactor are two parts of an equation that will take Australian nuclear medicine all around the world," Ansto said. "Nuclear medicine is a vital element of modern medical systems and in Australia it is sourced from [research reactor] Opal, enabling diagnosis and treatment of a variety of cancers, and heart, lung and skeletal conditions," it added.

Amano and Paterson, August 2016 (Ansto) 480x320
Amano and Paterson at the future molybdenum plant (Image: Ansto)

On 12 August, Opal - Open Pool Australian Lightwater - will celebrate ten years since it first went critical.

Ansto CEO Adrian Paterson said that since Opal achieved its first sustained nuclear chain reaction, it has produced "millions of doses of nuclear medicine used by one in two Australians at some point in their lifetime". Reactors such as Opal are the "only reliable way" of producing the nuclear medicine Mo-99 "at the quality and scale" needed by hospitals and nuclear medicine centres around the world, Paterson added.

Ansto will from next year help to fill a gap in supply of Mo-99 at a time when global demand for the potentially lifesaving isotope is increasing, he said.

"Every week, Opal assists industries in finding solutions, improving agricultural yields, conducting environmental studies and producing the major components of green energy," he said. "At Ansto our significant achievements of the past sit alongside our vision for the future, as Mr Amano saw today, visiting the construction site of Australia's $168.8 million investment in nuclear medicine for the world."

In 2012, the Australian government announced plans for the construction of the Mo-99 plant, together with a demonstration waste treatment plant based on Synroc technology for managing the subsequent radioactive by-products. Together, the facilities are known as the Ansto Nuclear Medicine project. Building works on the Synroc waste treatment plant are due to commence next year.

Synroc (short for synthetic rock) is a suite of technologies developed by Ansto for immobilising various forms of intermediate- and high-level radioactive wastes for disposal. It is a ceramic made from several natural minerals which together incorporate into their crystal structures nearly all of the elements present in high-level radioactive waste. According to Ansto, Synroc can reduce the volume of nuclear by-products by 99% (compared with other methods such as cementation).

Mo-99 is used in hospitals to produce the technetium-99 used in an estimated 45 million diagnostic procedures per year around the world. Produced in research reactors, the radioisotope has a half-life of only 66 hours and cannot be stockpiled. Most of the world's Mo-99 comes from just five reactors in Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, South Africa and Russia. Security of supply is a key concern, and recent years have seen global shortages of the isotope when major production reactors have been out of action. This has led to various initiatives around the world to investigate alternative sources of supply.

 Researched and written
by World Nuclear News