Nuclear reactors save lives, according to the thinking of some doctors. Anti-nuke activists might not see it that way, but when two aging facilities in Canada and the Netherlands recently shut down, a number of healthcare professionals and their patients became concerned, the Los Angeles Times reported yesterday.

Technetium 99m, a product of a series of reactions beginning with the splitting of uranium, is used in tests for cancer and heart disease, as well as in some treatments. Once inside the body, the radioactive isotope can bind to specific sites where it emits gamma rays. The resulting images can then help radiologists identify tumors and other diseased tissue.

But the shutdown of nuclear reactors now means less breaking down of uranium, which means less technetium 99m. And this shortage, radiologist Robert W. Atcher of the University of New Mexico told the Times, "is one of the greatest threats to our profession of modern times."

Many worry that patients could undergo unnecessary surgeries, or perhaps worse, miss necessary ones due to this drastic drop in the supply of radioisotopes. While some diagnostic alternatives do exist, these are often slower, less accurate and can expose patients to more radiation, according to the Times.

"We don't want to sound alarmist, but there are many suspected cases of cancer that will have to wait a long time, and perhaps these individuals have cancer," Dominique Verreault, president of the Alliance du personnel professionel et technique de la santé et des services sociaux, told the Montreal Gazette. "This is worrisome."

Groups are now looking for ways to ease current and, potentially worse, future isotope shortages. Proposals for new facilities are being filed in Canada, according to The Globe and Mail. And in the U.S., where more than 15 million nuclear medicine procedures are performed each year, government and industry officials are seeking solutions to ease the country’s reliance on failing foreign facilities.

"We have a moral imperative to produce our own medicines here in the U.S.," says James C. Katzaroff, chairman and CEO of the Advanced Medical Isotope Corporation (AMIC), based in Kennewick, Wash. His company is currently looking for a site to build its first linear accelerator plant for the domestic production of medical isotopes. "It's lower cost to build, less expensive to run, faster and safer [than nuclear reactors]," Katzaroff says. "We should be in business within three years."

This provides some hope for the approximately one-third of all patients admitted to U.S. hospitals that undergo at least one medical procedure employing medical isotopes, according to AMIC’s Web site. But, for many, three years may be too long to wait.

Picture of CT scanner by Trout55 via iStockphoto