Adi Paterson, Chief Executive of the Australian Nuclear Science Technology Organization (ANSTO), said the research and production-oriented 20-megawatt Open Pool Australian Lightwater reactor (OPAL) would increase production of radioactive isotopes for medical purposes, aiming to create 10 million doses a year to make up for potential shortages worldwide.
The scheduled closure of the National Research Universal reactor at Chalk River, Ontario, Canada, prompted the decision to increase production of medical isotopes at the reactor in Lucas Heights, New South Wales, a suburb of Sydney. Current production is at 550,000 doses per year at the Australian reactor. The increase, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, will bring production up to a level at a quarter of world's supply, which will put a dent in the loss of the reactor in Canada that currently supplies 40 percent of the world's supply of technetium, which is used in medical imaging.
Technetium is produced by bombarding uranium with neutrons to produce the radioactive isotope molybdenum. Molybdenum has a half life of 66 hours and technetium a half life of about six hours, which means the viable window of opportunity for its use in medical facilities is very short. Like produce at the grocery store, in order to keep world supply intact, there must be a steady supply of molybdenum and a dependable distribution system.
The Chalk River reactor is to be closed due to its age. It will be operational for 60 years by the time it closes in 2018. The OPAL reactor was opened in 2007. However, in 2012 the Australian Government announced a $168.8 million investment that would allow ANSTO to triple production of molybdenum-99, which is used in diagnostic imaging related to cancers, heart disease, muscular and skeletal conditions.
The funding targets a two-part project that included construction of a molybdenum-99 processing facility and a Synroc waste processing plant. Construction on the production facility began in 2014 and is to be completed in 2017. Along with that, upgrades at the OPAL reactor will allow for a doubling of production there to more than a million doses a year, which is seen, categorically, as enough to keep up with demand for the medical isotopes in Australia.
The waste treatment plant, meanwhile, is expected to decrease OPAL waste values by up to 90 percent.
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