Global supply of technetium imperiled by union walkout at Canadian reactor

May 27, 1998

Technetium supplies may be exhausted by May 29It seems like déjà vu all over again. Workers again are on strike at the Canadian nuclear reactor that produces most of the world’s supply of molybdenum, which is used to make

Technetium supplies may be exhausted by May 29

It seems like déjà vu all over again. Workers again are on strike at the Canadian nuclear reactor that produces most of the world’s supply of molybdenum, which is used to make technetium-99m, one of the mostly widely administered radiopharmaceuticals in nuclear medicine. The labor dispute comes just weeks prior to nuclear medicine’s showcase conference, the Society of Nuclear Medicine meeting in Toronto.

Members of the United Steelworkers of America, one of the unions at the Chalk River Laboratories nuclear reactor operated by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL), went on strike at midnight May 17, shutting down the facility’s ability to ship molybdenum. The workers provide support services to the reactor and are negotiating for a new contract with AECL, a Canadian government agency.

AECL’s molybdenum is usually purchased by a Canadian company, MDS Nordion, which then processes it and ships it to customers around the world. Chalk River supplies some 70% of the world’s supply of molybdenum, according to Ian Mumford, a spokesperson for MDS Nordion of Kanata, Ontario.

Molybdenum has a half-life of only 66 hours, which means that technetium supplies have only a few days before they run out. Radiopharmacy firm Syncor International of Woodland Hills, CA, estimates that its supply of technetium will run out by May 29.

Syncor is working to find another source for molybdenum, according to Mary Meusborn, a spokesperson for the company.

Alternative sources of molybdenum include a nuclear reactor in South Africa that is run by Mallinckrodt and that could replace some of AECL’s output. Another reactor in Belgium, operated by a company called IRE, could also pick up some of the slack, but MDS Nordion’s Mumford estimates that both facilities could probably meet only half the world’s demand for molybdenum.

Technical and labor problems at the Chalk River reactor have imperiled the world’s supply of molybdenum several times over the last few years. The most recent incident occurred almost a year ago, when another union at the Chalk River facility walked out (SCAN 7/9/97). The dispute interrupted molybdenum supplies for six days and had a financial impact on several radiopharmacy companies. Syncor, for example, saw its revenues fall $1.4 million, Meusborn said. About 60% of the company’s sales are derived from technetium-based products. Syncor is asking physicians to order nontechnetium procedures, and to reschedule elective and noncritical nuclear medicine exams, Meusborn said.

The ongoing problems at the Chalk River facility highlight the need to create alternative suppliers for molybdenum, and several commercial and government entities are trying to do just that.International Isotopes of Denton, TX, is building a facility based on a linear accelerator to create a U.S. supply of medical radioisotopes, including molybdenum (SCAN 9/3/97). The U.S. Department of Energy is also trying to bring a nuclear reactor in New Mexico online to produce medical-grade radioisotopes.

Mallinckrodt of St. Louis has plans to become self-sufficient in molybdenum by using a reactor in Petten, the Netherlands, to supply the radioisotope. It is believed that Mallinckrodt is not currently producing molybdenum, however, because a processing facility is not working, according to Mumford.

MDS Nordion cannot estimate when the labor dispute between the union and AECL will be resolved and molybdenum supplies will be restored. The company plans to put pressure on the Canadian government to resolve the issue.

“We hope the parties will be back at the table shortly,” Mumford said. “We and the nuclear medicine community are putting pressure on the parties and on the government of Canada to do that.”