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Importance Of Nuclear Industry In Health And Sciences

In light of the recent controversy surrounding nuclear power plants and the insistence by many that they can be swapped out without any harmful effects for alternative power sources I figured it’d be refreshing to look at a side of nuclear power plants which isn’t part of public knowledge.

There are two groups of useful radioactive compounds for medical and other examinations and research. These fall into the transuranium (transuranic) elements [1] and other isotopes. Transuranium isotopes are generally only produced artificially as they’re heavier than uranium. Beyond trace elements they do not occur naturally. Similarly, the other isotopes are of the highly radioactive type which consequently have very brief half-lives. These isotopes are all derived or obtained from products of a nuclear reactor.

Of the transuranium elements some of the most remarkable are:

  • Californium: high neutron production, extremely useful for treating types of cervical and brain cancers, radiography of aircraft, etc. to detect corrosion, bad welds, trapped moisture, etc. [2]
  • Curium: to produce plutonium for radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) for spacecraft and cardiac pacemakers, source of alpha-particle X-ray spectrometers as installed on the Sojourner, Mars, Mars 96, Spirit, Athena and Opportunity rovers. [3]
  • Americium: smoke detectors, RTG fuel in spacecraft, source of gamma rays and alpha particles for medical and industrial use. [4]
  • Plutonium: energy source for RTGs. Used in spacecraft and medical pacemakers. [5]

For medical diagnosis, radiation therapy [6], etc. the following isotopes are commonly used:

  • Iodine: I-123 is commonly used for medical imaging of the thyroid gland. I-131 is very effective in direct cancer therapy for thyroid cancers. [7]
  • Gallium: Ga-67 in the body collects at areas of inflammation and rapid cell division (e.g. tumors), useful for diagnosis and detection. Ga-68 is used as radionuclide with PET-CT scans for cancer diagnosis. Ga-71 is used for neutrino detection in physics experiments. [8]
  • Fluorine: F-18 is used in PET imaging for brain glucose metabolism and imaging cancer tumors. F-19 is used in NMR studies of metabolism, protein structures, etc. [9]
  • Indium: I-111 is used in indium leukocyte imaging, for assessment of antibiotic therapies. It is useful for monitoring white blood cells and commonly used in drug development. [10]
  • Xenon: Xe-133 for imaging of the heart, lungs and brain as well as blood flow. Xe-129 as contrast agent in MRIs for studies of soft issues like the lungs including the gas flow inside the lungs. [11]
  • Yttrium: Y-90 is used for the treatment of various cancers including lymphoma, leukemia, ovarian, colorectal, pancreatic and bone cancers in combination with monoclonal antibodies for adhering to cancer cells. Y-90 is also used for needles to sever nerves more precisely than a scalpel would. [12]
  • Technetium: Tc-99m is generated via molybdenum-99 and used extensively as a radioactive tracer. It’s used for detection and diagnosis of many tumors. It’s used in well over 20 million diagnostic procedures every year. [13]

Shortages of these isotopes have occurred already when maintenance of the nuclear reactors NRU and HFR (Canada) in 2007 took longer than expected. The repeated shutdowns over a period of 3 years led to a massive world-wide shortage of molybdenum-99. Replacement reactors for these aging reactors were planned but scrapped due to safety issues. At this point the world’s supply of these isotopes is provided mostly by rapidly aging nuclear reactors in addition to cyclotrons.

Solutions to in particular the molybdenum-99 shortages could be found in using the many nuclear power reactors for isotopes, though this would mean changing the way they are being regulated. No technical limitations exist there. Another option is to use cyclotrons for this, but this is an unproven method. [14]

For transuranium elements shortages shouldn’t be underestimated either. Without plutonium for powering our spacecraft we’d have no RTGs and thus be limited with our space exploration to a range not far beyond the Earth’s distance from the sun. It’d make large Mars rovers impossible. Plutonium RTGs for pacemakers aren’t uncommon either even at this point. The potential of new transuranium elements shouldn’t be underestimated either.

Non-transuranium isotopes used in medical diagnostics are crucial enough that without their wide availability cancer diagnosis and treatment would become difficult to impossible depending on the type of cancer. The presence of nuclear reactors to generate these is paramount.

It should be clear that the impact of the nuclear industry as it has developed over the past decade and into this decade goes far beyond mere generating of electricity. Lives literally depend on it.


  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transuranium_element
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Californium
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curium
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Americium
  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plutonium
  6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_medicine
  7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iodine
  8. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gallium
  9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fluorine
  10. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indium
  11. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xenon
  12. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yttrium
  13. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technetium-99m
  14. http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/2010/dec/03/medical-isotope-shortages-could-become-commonplace

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Maya Posch: professional software engineer and game developer. Graphics artist and all-around science junky.