Union walkout imperils technetium supply

June 25, 1997

The world's supply of technetium, the most commonly used radioisotope in nuclear medicine, was imperiled last week after a Canadian union went on strike at the nuclear reactor that supplies the world with 75% to 90% of molybdenum-99, the raw material

The world's supply of technetium, the most commonly used radioisotope in nuclear medicine, was imperiled last week after a Canadian union went on strike at the nuclear reactor that supplies the world with 75% to 90% of molybdenum-99, the raw material used to make the tracer.

Officials at Nordion International, the company that buys molybdenum from the Canadian government, estimate that unless the reactor is brought back online, there is only enough molybdenum to last through June 22.

Workers employed at the Chalk River reactor operated by Canadian government agency Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. (AECL) went on strike at midnight June 18, according to Ian Mumford, vice president of public affairs at Nordion of Kanata, Ontario. Mumford was unsure of the cause of the dispute between the parties, although local newspapers have indicated that it is financial, he said.

Nordion buys molybdenum from AECL and sells it to radiopharmaceutical companies, which use it to create technetium preparation kits. Technetium is used in a wide range of radiopharmaceuticals, including Du Pont Merck's Cardiolite and Miraluma agents, Immunomedics' CEA-Scan, and other products.

Last week's walkout is only the latest threat to Chalk River's molybdenum production, although it is perhaps the most serious in years. Nordion and its parent MDS are building two new nuclear reactors designed to remove the world's dependence on the Chalk River facility. The first of those reactors isn't scheduled to go online until 1999, however.

Nordion has implemented a backup plan to use reactors in South Africa and Belgium to help alleviate the looming shortage. Even so, Mumford estimates that those reactors could produce only about 25% of the world's requirements. In the meantime, Nordion and the nuclear medicine community are hoping that a solution can be brokered between the union and the Canadian government before technetium-based procedures have to be canceled.

"We are encouraging the government of Canada to intervene in some way to get the reactor started," Mumford said. "It's a very fragile situation."