Concerns remain over moly supply despite resolution of AECL strike

June 10, 1998

Industry searches for alternative suppliers for technetium raw materialA collective sigh of relief wafted through hospital halls and corporate offices with the resolution last month of a week-long strike at Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.'s (AECL)

Industry searches for alternative suppliers for technetium raw material

A collective sigh of relief wafted through hospital halls and corporate offices with the resolution last month of a week-long strike at Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd.'s (AECL) Chalk River Laboratories reactor. The walkout interrupted global distribution of molybdenum-99, the radioisotope used to make technetium-99m, and affected nuclear medicine physicians, their patients, and the radiopharmaceutical companies that distribute technetium-based products.

The Chalk River reactor produces 70% of the world's molybdenum, which is shipped to MDS Nordion of Kanata, Ontario, for processing and distribution to radiopharmaceutical companies. In addition to the Chalk River reactor, two other facilities in South Africa and Belgium contribute to the global molybdenum supply.

In the midst of pressure from Canadian government officials and a coalition of nuclear medicine physicians and professional groups, Local 1568 of the United Steelworkers of America accepted AECL's offer of binding arbitration on May 23, seven days after the union went on strike (SCAN 5/27/98). The union represents some 500 technicians and technologists, roughly 30% of the facility's workers, according to Peter Lisle, AECL's senior manager of public affairs.

Molybdenum's 66-hour half-life makes even short interruptions in its production a challenge to an industry dependent on the isotope for the manufacture of technetium, a radiotracer used especially for cardiac imaging. Among the radiopharmaceutical companies affected by the strike was Syncor International, which had expected to run out of technetium within days of the walkout. Syncor lost $1 million in sales, with a corresponding after-tax loss of between $100,000 and $200,000, said Mary Meusborn, spokesperson for the Woodland Hills, CA-based firm.

Some industry watchers wonder if the strike represents the latest installment of an alarming period of instability at Chalk River, as a similar labor dispute a year ago shut down molybdenum production (SCAN 6/25/97). Union problems at Chalk River should calm down, however, as three out of the four major union bargaining units at the reactor have signed contracts, according to Lisle. He described the disputes as a delayed effect of the early 1990s economic slump.

"The recession we all suffered through included payroll freezes, so it was predictable that there would be a bumpier road," Lisle said. "We've now come out of that with all the bargaining units, and in most cases signed contracts, so the situation is much more stable than some people perceive it to be."

Although last month's strike was short-lived, the North American nuclear medicine community continues its search for molybdenum supply alternatives in the event production is again interrupted. AECL is building two new reactors at the Chalk River site, which it will operate but MDS Nordion will own. One of the reactors is expected to be running by summer 1999. In addition, the U.S. Department of Energy plans to be ready to process molybdenum at a reactor at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico by the end of this year.

St. Louis-based Mallinckrodt was not affected by the strike, since its reactor in Petten, the Netherlands, supplies most of the company's own needs for molybdenum, according to Peter Faur, director of corporate communications. Mallinckrodt's first commitment in a shortage is to its own customers, but the company would not rule out serving other distributors in the event of a crisis.

"To the extent that we could supply other radiopharmaceutical manufacturers, we'd be willing to do so," Faur said. "We recognize that in the end it's patients who are affected by a radiopharmaceutical shortage."