Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Technetium-99 Crisis

June 12th, 2009 · 5 Comments

medicalisotopesThere are already so many reasons to love our Canadian brothers: poutine, Rush, Alex Trebek. But let’s add another to the lengthy list: The nation to our north makes PET scans possible, by producing the bulk of the world’s supply of medical isotopes. Chief among these isotopes is Technetium-99, which is key to safe pediatric bone scans.

But now it looks as if Canada may be getting out of the business, due to fears that its nuclear reactors are too aged to operate safely. Technetium-99 is produced at only one reactor, the Chalk River facility in Ontario, and it was recently shuttered due to maintenance problems. Hospitals are already feeling the pinch, and the situation seems certain to get worse as reactors in the Netherlands and South Africa slow down in their old age.

The long-term problem is that it’s far too expensive to build new reactors dedicated to medical isotopes—the multi-billion dollar investment doesn’t justify the current $10-per-pound price for molybdenum, the precursor for Technetium-99. So what to do? Maybe fire up those cyclotrons.


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5 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    I remember reading a pretty neat account in PIHKAL about using radio-labeled iodine and fluorine-substituted phenethylamines for tracking where the hallucinogens go in your body. There are some pretty neat things you can do if you’re not too scared of a bit of radiation.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: I’ve always wondered how medical science got around to establishing what constituted a safe dose of radiation. I wonder if those post-Hiroshima studies I referred to a few days back played any role in the process.

    I tend to think that we err on the side of caution, and that our bodies can probably handle a bit more radiation than we thnk. But then again, people’s bodies probably react different based on genetic factors. So it’s not like I’ll be volunteering for any unnecessary X-rays in the near future…

  • Jordan


    It’s standard procedure in nuclear facilities that the oldest men get exposed to the highest doses. Both because they don’t have a static store of gametes to work with and because men seem to be a bit more resistant to the effects of radiation. Clearly something that would be interesting to figure out in detail, but also difficult to set up ethical studies.

    As an anecdote, my first boss when I started working in a lab showed me their x-ray crystallography setup and quipped “I hope you weren’t planning on having any children”. For better or worse, he was joking.

  • Sam

    While there are much more complex methods available, a common starting point for setting radiation exposure limits is to consider the dose that we all receive from natural sources (cosmic rays, carbon 14, radon, solar UV and so on). We know that this dose is, if not safe, certainly more-or-less irreducible. If exposure from artifical sources is well below the background dose, it is considered very unlikely that any additional harm will be caused.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Sam: Many thanks for the primer on dosage safety. I constantly forget that, yes, we’re being bombarded with radiation constantly–and thus “radiation” isn’t quite the dirty word it’s become in the post-Manhattan Project Era.