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Medical Isotope Supply Gets Another Squeeze as Dutch Reactor Goes Down for Repairs

by Brendon Nafziger, DOTmed News Associate Editor | December 18, 2009
HFR Petten reactor
site in the Netherlands
The already troubled world supply of medical isotopes could face a tighter squeeze as the Dutch High Flux reactor goes offline next year for almost six months of repairs.

The NRC, which runs the Petten, Netherlands-based reactor, announced on December 15 that the long-awaited shutdown for repairs will begin February 19, 2010. The work, to fix the system's cooling pipework, is expected to last until the end of August 2010.

Planned for months

The reactor's customers have known about the scheduled shutdown for nearly a year, according to the NRC.

In August 2008, routine inspections of the reactor revealed small gas bubbles, indicative of corrosion. Teams will spend the next six months fitting in new pipework, a time-consuming business because the pipes lie within thick shields of concrete. This has to be removed, new aluminum welded in, and then the whole system re-encased in fresh concrete.

"We've very extensively prepared, and it's not a very complicated repair technique," Juliette van der Laan, a spokeswoman for NRC, tells DOTmed News. "It has all been tested, the repair technique and material have all been qualified by now, so we do not expect any unpleasant surprises."

An inconvenient gap

Even though the Petten reactor is expected to go back online according to plan, the critical issue will be the several weeks when it is down before Canada's National Research Universal reactor, a medical isotope-producing powerhouse shut down since May to fix a heavy water leak, goes back online, probably at the end of March.

The 52-year-old Canadian reactor has long been one of the world's main producers of molybdenum-99, accounting for almost 40 percent of the global supply of this isotope processed for some medical imaging.

Many experts fear the overlap of the downing of both reactors could threaten an already precarious supply chain.

"The good news is reactors in Belgium, France and South Africa have worked together to try to bridge the outage for Petten, and have been pretty successful in managing that," Robert Atcher, Ph.D., program manager of Department of Health and Human Services programs with Los Alamos National Laboratory in N.M., tells DOTmed News. Dr. Atcher also chairs the Society of Nuclear Medicine's Domestic Isotope Availability Committee.

Dr. Atcher has just returned from the High-level Group on the Security of Supply of Medical Radioisotopes in Paris, December 14-15, where managers of reactors and members of the nuclear medicine community tried to hammer out solutions to isotope shortages.