Nuclear medicine braces for effects of Petten reactor shutdown

August 27, 2008

An unscheduled shutdown of the High Flux Reactor at Petten in the Netherlands has raised concern about a possible interruption of molybdenum-99 supplies for nuclear medicine procedures in Europe and North America.

An unscheduled shutdown of the High Flux Reactor at Petten in the Netherlands has raised concern about a possible interruption of molybdenum-99 supplies for nuclear medicine procedures in Europe and North America.

The Netherlands' Nuclear Research & consultancy Group (NRG) announced Aug. 26 that isotope production from the 45-MW research reactor at Petten would be halted for at least one month because of an unplanned shutdown.

The problems at Petten originated with the discovery of a gas leak during routine maintenance last week, according to the NRG. The agency assured the public that the leak presented no threat to public health. The source and composition of the gas are under investigation.

An announcement of when the reactor will be restarted is expected by Sept. 2. The delay will affect the medical isotope market, NRG noted in a news release.

"This is like a bad dream that keeps recycling," said Robert W. Atcher, Ph.D., president of the SNM in an interview. "This problem will not be rectified easily."

The High Flux Reactor at Petten covers an estimated 60% of the European demand for MO-99, the precursor isotope for technetium-99, the workhorse isotope used in most nuclear medicine procedures.

The reactor is reportedly the primary source for Covidien, a technetium generator provider in Hazelwood, MO. It addresses about 25% of the MO-99 relevant to 19 million nuclear medicine procedures performed annually in North America. Covidien is expected to issue an assessment for its customers in the next two or three days, Atcher said.

The problems at Petten could not come at a worse time, Atcher said. Several days of MO-99 production were lost last week at the National Research Universal reactor at Chalk River, ON, Canada, when an electrical storm triggered a precautionary shutdown. Lost production from the orderly restart of the reactor caused a shortage of MO-99 in North America last week.

The NRU reactor covers half the world demand for MO-99 and normally has enough excess capacity to cover the additional need for production if one or several reactors that produce MO-99 are shut down.

Its ability to meet that need will be put to the test. The Association of Imaging Producer and Equipment Suppliers, a consortium of European isotope producers, announced Aug. 26 that the other two large European reactors in France and Belgium are also shut down for routine maintenance. The coincidence means that no irradiation tool will be available in Europe for producing medical isotope.

The situation leaves NRU, which is ramping up for full production, the 20-MW SAFARI-1 reactor in South Africa, and possibly the 20-MW Open Pool Australian Lightwater reactor near Sydney, Australia, as the primary sources of alternative MO-99.

A separate report from the Ottawa Business Journal also had the South African facility shut down for routine maintenance.

"We have the potential here for a perfect storm for MO-99 supply," Atcher said. "Ideally, NRU can meet 70% of world demand. We are going to be still 30% undersupplied until some of these reactors come back online."

The situation remains too fluid, however, for the SNM to make recommendations to its members, Atcher said.

For more information from the Diagnostic Imaging archives:

SNM panel finds no easy path to expand molybdenum-99 supplies

Canadian agency pulls plug on molybdenum reactors

Isotope supply crash drives push for new moly sources