Economics key to secure isotope supplies

04 May 2011

Producers, governments and other participants in the global supply chain of molybdenum-99 must act to address an unstable economic structure that is threatening long-term security of supply of the vital medical radioisotope, the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) has warned.

The NEA's Steering Committee for Nuclear Energy has formally endorsed a policy approach to restructure aspects of the market for the isotope that are currently functioning unsustainably, and to promote an internationally consistent approach. The policy approach was drawn up by the agency's High Level Group on the Security of Supply of Medical Radioisotopes (HLG-MR), itself established in 2009 with a two-year mandate to strengthen reliability of the supply of molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) and its decay product, technetium-99m (Tc-99m) in the short, medium and long term.

Tc-99m imaging techniques are used in over 80% of all nuclear medicine procedures, but as the isotope itself has a very short half-life of only six hours the longer-lived Mo-99 is used to generate Tc-99m at the point of treatment. Mo-99 itself is also relatively short-lived, with a half-life of 66 hours, so a regular and reliable supply is crucial. However, most of the world's Mo-99 is currently produced in a handful of ageing research reactors, and experiences over the last four years - including an extended unscheduled outage at Canada's NRU followed by extended shutdowns NRU and the Netherlands' HFR - have caused significant supply shortages on a global scale, leading to the cancellation or delay of many diagnostic procedures. 

In the wake of the supply crisis of 2009-2010 caused by the extended outages at NRU and HFR, the HLG-MR has carried out a comprehensive assessment of key areas of vulnerability in the supply chain and identified issues that need to be addressed. Significant progress has already been made through increased communication, coordination of research reactor schedules and improved understanding of demand-management opportunities, the NEA notes, and the current supply situation has stabilised. However, it warns, the underlying problem of an unsustainable economic structure remains, and unless this is addressed, supply shortages could become commonplace over the next decade.

The HLG-MR's suggested policy approach to address this is based on six principles. Firstly, all supply chain participants should implement full cost-recovery, ensuring continued investment in the industry. Secondly, reserve capacity to cope with unexpected supply shortages should be sourced and paid for by those in the supply chain.


Over the years the research reactors that produce the isotope have been significantly funded by governments, effectively subsidising the Mo-99 supply chain. The third principle calls for governments to ensure that the market can play its proper role, by establishing regulatory environments under which the market can operate efficiently, ensuring that market-ready technologies implement full-cost recovery methods, and refraining from direct interventions in market operations.

In the fourth principle, with an eye on nuclear non-proliferation concerns, the HLG-MR calls on governments to support the conversion of research reactors to use low-enriched uranium targets for Mo-99 production wherever technically and economically feasible. The fifth calls for governments and supply chain participants to collaborate internationally to ensure a globally consistent approach to addressing the security of supply issues, while the sixth calls for periodic reviews of progress towards an economically stable supply chain.

The proposals follow on from a report released by the HLG-MR in September 2010, which suggested that for the supply chain to be economically sustainable, remuneration for reactor irradiation services and processing services should be based on the full costs of production.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News