Australian news, and some related international items

ANSTO’s nuclear medicine problems

Why is there no mention of the fact that all meedical radioisotopes, including technetium 99m can now be produced by a cycclotron, without need of a nuclear reactor?


The marketing material sent out by the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation was clear: its planned nuclear medicine facility, ANM, costing $169m and due by the end of 2016, was a big deal.

State of the art. World-class. A significant improvement on the existing facilities that already performed a lifesa NM will position Australia as a global leader in the high-end manufacturing of nuclear medicine used in over 45 million medical procedures globally each year to diagnose cancers, heart disease and skeletal conditions,” ANSTO boasted……

Atomic angst

Alongside Australia’s nuclear reactor in southwest Sydney are several buildings crucial to the production of nuclear medicine.

On the morning of August 22, 2017, around 7am, one of ANSTO’s quality control analysts dropped a vial containing a solution of the isotope Mo-99 in Building 23 at the reactor site. There, Mo-99 produced in another building is used to make Tc-99m generators for use in nuclear medicine.

Experts would later express alarm at what the worker had been required to do, likening it to “reaching around a tree truck with both hands, to perform a critical procedure” — using tongs to remove the cap from a small bottle. It was an accident waiting to happen.

Building 23 is an older facility, relying on manual labour more than automation, having originally been intended for research, not manufacturing. Even though the breakage was inside a fume cabinet it still contaminated the worker’s gloves — two pairs, worn as a precaution — and, worryingly, the skin underneath.

GRAPHIC: Ill health industry

A specialist oncologist determined the worker had been exposed to about 20 times the statutory annual dose limit of radiation. The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency deemed it a level 3 serious incident on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) and notified the International Atomic Energy Agency. It was the first time ARPANSA had reported a level 3 incident, on a scale ranging from 0, where there are no safety implications, to level 7 events such as Chernobyl and Fukushima.

“The injury has caused skin blistering, erythema and desquamation,” ARPANSA reported to parliament in February last year.

“Recent medical observations dated January 2018 showed the tissue damage to the skin of both hands is ongoing. The healing will take months and there is a risk of longer term effects.”

ARPANSA found ANSTO in breach of legislation on the basis it “had many opportunities to prevent the accident or reduce the likelihood of occurrence and/or severity of the accident consequence” and had failed to act.

ANSTO vowed to do better. However, three further safety incidents, as well as a conveyor breakdown in Building 23 that halted production of generators, led ARPANSA to issue a rare formal direction to ANSTO demanding an independent review.

Staff under pressure

The review found culture and morale at ANSTO Health, its nuclear medicine arm, had “significantly deteriorated” under internal changes and constant pressure to do more with less……..

at the end of last year the IAEA sent its own 20-member review team to inspect Australian facilities and, primarily, the regulatory system in which they operated.

Early this year they made a series of recommendations, including that the commonwealth “take actions with specific milestones to address decommissioning of facilities and radioactive waste management by assuring the strategies, programs, funding and technical expertise for safe completion are in place”……..

in June, the ANM facility had to be shut down after the hands of three workers were exposed to radiation, two of whom received a dose that exceeded the recommended annual limit.

The incident was classified level 2, and ARPANSA last month again found ANSTO in breach. Building 54 was hastily reopened before the ANM facility was cleared to resume production.

Then, last month, the unthinkable happened: the ANM facility broke down due to a mechanical fault with a gate valve at the top of a dissolution cell.

Fixing it would be no easy task, made more complicated by the presence of radiation and the effort needed to contain it.

There were no immediate safety concerns for workers but ANSTO has been forced to import Mo-99 ever since.

Currie says importing Mo-99 at least involves less wastage than the previous scenario whereby Mo-99 was traded away for generators, both of which have a limited shelf life…..

ANSTO has never revealed the full cost of the imports and other contingencies, but recently raised its prices.

Industry, Science and Technology Minister Karen Andrews hasn’t had much to say about all the problems but the government directed another $56m to ANSTO in the last budget.

Funding for new facilities has yet to be allocated.

October 21, 2019 - Posted by | AUSTRALIA - NATIONAL, health

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