Australian agency orders review of Mo-99 procedures

2018 07 20 22 27 4483 Australian Flag 400

An Australian government agency has ordered a review of radiation safety procedures at another federal agency in charge of running the nuclear reactor that was forced to stop shipments of the radioisotope molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) last month. The halt has spurred an ongoing shortage of important radiopharmaceuticals in the country.

The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) ordered the review at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO); the ANSTO Health unit operates the Open Pool Australian Lightwater (OPAL) reactor in Lucas Heights, outside of Sydney. ARPANSA said it was issuing the directive after four separate events with safety implications occurred at ANSTO Health in the past 10 months.

ANSTO suspended Mo-99 shipments from the OPAL reactor in June after a mechanical problem with a transport conveyor at the reactor site. While the reactor itself remained operational, Australian authorities have had to import supplies of Mo-99, a precursor to technetium-99m, which is commonly used in nuclear medicine procedures.

With its directive, ARPANSA has ordered ANSTO to take steps to start an independent review of processes and operational procedures at the Lucas Heights facility, especially those associated with quality control of molybdenum-99 samples.

The directive noted an incident in August 2017 in which a "contamination event" occurred with a staffer's hands. Three additional events -- including the shutdown of molybdenum shipping in June -- "indicate ongoing safety issues at ANSTO Health." ANSTO has appointed an external review team to carry out the review, an action that has been approved by ARPANSA.

In the meantime, Australia is only able to receive 75% of the Mo-99 supplies it needs due to delays in getting backup supplies from the U.S., according to a July 21 article in the Australian. The article notes that the transport conveyor has been fixed, but shipments are still on hold pending the completion of compliance checks and audits. Repair work in the conveyor room was delayed because ANSTO staff members were forced to wait until radiation levels in the room fell.

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