Brussels – World supplies of radioactive substances for use in medicine are reliant on a dangerously low number of producers and risk running out, the European Union’s executive warned on Friday.

A radioactive isotope known as Technetium-99m is the active ingredient in treatments ranging from brain scans to fighting cancer. But the element from which it comes, Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), is produced in only a handful of ageing research reactors.

“Worldwide, only seven government-owned research reactors provide about 95 per cent of the world’s Mo-99 production … As those reactors were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s, they are approaching the end of their lifespan,” the European Commission said.

Five of the seven reactors are in the EU, in Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, the Netherlands and Poland.

Technetium-99m is used in a wide variety of medical applications because its half-life – the time it takes to decay – is relatively short, meaning that it quickly disappears from a patient’s body.

But the same factor means that it cannot be stored for extended periods. Hospitals therefore require weekly supplies of the isotope.

“Any supply disruption can lead to a situation where crucial diagnostic imaging tests must be cancelled or postponed, with negative and sometimes life-threatening consequences for patients,” the commission said.

At the same time, market prices for the isotope are too low to tempt commercial reactor operators to start producing it.

EU states should therefore think about using some of the bloc’s finances to promote new isotope production, the commission said.

The idea now goes to EUstates and the European Parliament for debate.

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