Medical radioisotopes

The use of medical radioisotopes is an important part of modern medical practice. Each year, over 40 million people around the world benefit from nuclear medicine imaging. Medical radioisotopes are used in non-invasive diagnostic imaging techniques to help identify and stratify commonly occurring critical conditions such as heart disease and cancer at an early stage. They are then used to track disease progression and provide predictive information about the likely success of different therapy options. This information helps health care professionals to correctly manage disease and to make well-informed important medical decisions, such as therapeutic drug choice or making a surgical intervention.

Supply shortages

Disruptions in the radioisotope supply chain can disturb the availability of medical testing for millions of patients around world. Over the last few years there have been a number of supply shortages of the most widely used medical radioisotope, molybdenum-99 (99Mo), and its decay product, technetium‑99m (99mTc). With short half-lives of 66 hours for 99Mo and 6 hours for 99mTc, these isotopes cannot be stored and must be produced daily and used efficiently in order to meet clinical demand. At this time, 8 multipurpose research reactors, 7 of which are over 45 years old, are producing over 95% of the world’s supply of 99Mo. That material is processed in only five major radiochemistry facilities. These (mostly ageing) facilities, of which two reactors and one radiochemistry facility will be withdrawn from service by 2017, face significant challenges in maintaining security of supply to the international health community.

Securing the supply

At the request of its member countries, the NEA became involved in global efforts to ensure a reliable supply of 99Mo and 99mTc. The NEA established the High-level Group on the Security of Supply of Medical Radioisotopes (HLG-MR) in 2009. The HLG-MR is comprised of approximately 40 experts representing the governments of Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Japan, Republic of Korea, the Netherlands, Poland, the Russian Federation, South Africa, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as from the European Commission (Euratom Supply Agency) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Members of the HLG-MR were nominated by governments and included experts from government agencies responsible for medical or nuclear policy, as well as from research and industrial organisations with interests in medical radioisotopes.


Last reviewed: 16 September 2014