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2 March 2016
Port Augusta Transcontinental, Port Augusta SA 02 Mar 2016
THE anti-nuclear brigade's argument that you don't need nuclear reactors to produce nuclear medicine is factually inaccurate.
Their story goes like this: nuclear medicine products can be, and are already, commercially produced in ways that don't require nuclear reactors, those ways don't result in radioactive waste, and the needs for nuclear medicines can be satisfied through alternative approaches.
As the Australian leader in research to produce such medicines with non-reactor based methods, I can tell you that this is false.
Let's get some facts on the record.
Nuclear medicine is a critical part of modern health systems, and is used in hospitals and medical centres to diagnose and treat a vast array of conditions including cancer and heart, lung, muscular, neurological and skeletal conditions.
Demand for this potentially lifesaving medicine is significant, and growing.
In Australia it currently sits at around 10,000 doses a week, which are sourced from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) at Lucas Heights, and sent to 250 medical facilities in the region. One in two Australians will need this potentially lifesaving medicine at some point in their lifetime, and internationally the numbers are just as staggering.
World demand for nuclear medicine currently sits at around 40 million doses a year, and according to the OECD this is increasing at a rate of up to five per cent a year, as people live longer and more countries modernise their medical systems.
That's fantastic, but the problem is that while demand is increasing, the reactors that produce something like 70 per cent of this medicine are ageing and are scheduled to shut down in coming years.
We need security of nuclear medicine supplies in Australia to ensure that we continue to enjoy our world-leading health and wellbeing outcomes.
So does the rest of the world, which is why Australia will be producing more, not less, reactor-based medicine.
In recent years, to complement our relatively new reactor that was only commissioned in 2007, Australia committed $170 million to a new factory at Sydney's Lucas Heights that will enable international supply of around 10 million doses a year.
The project has two components.
The first is a new medical factory with significant production capacity and state-of the-art technology, which I have seen under construction, and is shaping up to be an incredible facility.
The second is a waste management facility that uses Synroc technology to lock up the by-products, and reduce their volume by 95 per cent compared to methods such as cementation.
So in the end the project will aim to both produce more medicine and less volumes of waste than is currently the case.
In Australia our nuclear medicine production techniques are the envy of the world, with low enriched uranium fuel and target plates - the only such facility.
The inconvenient truth for those who espouse the claims that alternative technologies such as cyclotrons can replace our reactor - is that they can't.
While accelerators are fantastic for producing PET scan medicines, they can't effectively produce the workhorse of nuclear medicine, technetium-99m, which accounts for 75-80 per cent of global nuclear medicine procedures.
At best, currently accelerators produce lower amounts of lower quality technetium-99m, at a higher cost with less reliability. Despite this, overseas in places like Canada, governments have spent millions of dollars supporting the development of experimental cyclotron-based technologies for nuclear medicine production - and none of those technologies are producing commercial supply of a quality product.
I would love to see greater success in cyclotron production, and am leading research into this development, but can tell you the challenges.
The fact is that there are a large number of barriers to overcome, that's not going to happen anytime soon, and, at best, cyclotron supply could one day top up, not replace, reactor-produced medicine.
The security of supply of nuclear medicines is not a hypothetical problem and cannot be addressed by currently hypothetical technologies and techniques.
You can't run a medical system on what ifs and hope.
Dr Geoff Currie is Associate Professor in medical radiation science at Charles Sturt University and Clinical Professor/Professor of molecular imaging at Macquarie University.