Medical Isotope Shortage
Joan Stephenson, PhD
A worldwide "critical shortage" of medical isotopes is expected due to the shutdown until late 2009 of a nuclear reactor in Ontario, Canada, according to Canadian authorities. The reactor, which stopped operations because of a heavy water leak, produces as much as 40% of the global supply of molybdenum 99 (99Mo), which decays to form technetium 99m (99mTc). 99mTc is currently used in approximately 80% of nuclear medicine scans.
According to Natural Resources Canada, the world's current supply of 99Mo is produced by 5 aging reactors in Belgium, Canada, France, the Netherlands, and South Africa. The shortage was expected to be exacerbated by the temporary closing of the Netherlands reactor for a month-long maintenance inspection from July 18 to August 18. Because the isotopes have a relatively short half life, they cannot be stockpiled.
Canadian authorities said they were working with medical isotope distributors and others to maximize the use of existing isotope supplies and with other international producers to increase isotope production and to coordinate shutdowns and other operations.
That's right, we use nuclear power to make medically-important isotopes. Well, not "we," as in local US plants but we rely on foreign plants to irradiate our 'topes for us. I'm not sure why we don't have our own plants churning out isotopes ourselves, but that could be related to the fact that we haven't built a new nuclear plant in America in 30+ years. There's a brain drain of nuclear expertise from this country and we'd probably have to import some European-made design if we ever started being smart with nuclear and joined the proper energy source of the 21st century.
That's right, I think nuclear power is great. Think about it: nuclear power produces virtually no greenhouse gases and can make us virtually energy independent. Two big birds down with one stone. Oh, and if you want to create jobs - how about building new plants and building a smart nuclear engineer workforce in America? Nuclear energy has a proven safety record in America - and this is with using clunking designs from 50 years ago. How much better would we be with if we built new, more efficient and safer designs that we find in places like France? This is one area where France got it right: most of the electrical energy of France is supplied by French nuclear power plants.
Worried about nuclear waste? Read up about Yucca Mountain - a location long-studied in geology as an ideal place to store radioactive waste and practically ready for operation if the politicians would only let it. Worried about transportation of radioactive waste? The US has a track record of shipping waste thousands of times and there has never been an incident or accidental release of waste. Worried about terrorists? Seriously? You can't hold back our nation's progress based on the fear of a might-happen. All nuclear facilities in America are very well guarded.
That all said, I don't think nuclear fission will be the only power source of the future. I think solar energy is an excellent source as well. Solar energy bathes America with tons of free energy on a daily basis and if we could harness even a bit of that (particularly from our little populated, but very illuminated Southwest deserts) the Sun could easily supply more energy for us than this country uses many times over. Hydroelectric power has its niche uses but it's poor for general energy supply. Wind energy seems like a goofy idea to me and likely to always be marginal since it's such an eyesore. Other ideas like geothermal are unlikely to become much since their technical maturity would come at around the same time as nuclear fusion power and fusion could be the real powerhouse for the end of the 21st century.
Nuclear power is power of the future - whether it's made right here on Earth or has to travel 93 million miles from Sol.