Cancer screenings cancelled after fresh incident at Lucas Heights nuclear facility

A fault at Australia’s only nuclear medical facility leads to shortages of isotope crucial for diagnosing a variety of conditions

Thousands of cancer screenings and other crucial procedures are expected to have been cancelled by the end of the week after a fresh incident at Australia’s only nuclear medical facility.

Doctors have been told a fault at the Lucas Heights nuclear medical facility over the weekend has caused another short-term shortage of molybdenum-99, a commonly used isotope in nuclear medicine.

It’s used in hospitals and nuclear medicine centres to diagnose a variety of heart, lung, organ and musculoskeletal conditions.

Charles Sturt University Associate Prof Geoff Currie told Guardian Australia on Wednesday the shortage could cause as many as 12,000 patients to have their procedures cancelled this week.

Rural and regional areas are expected to bear the brunt of shortage.

“They’ve had a short-term fault that has stopped production this week,” said Currie, who is on a working group that manages the shortages.

“The [health] departments that should have got these products last Friday didn’t get them. Pharmacists that should have got them on Monday didn’t get them,” he added.

Currie, a top Australian expert in nuclear medicine, said with only about half the usual supply of the medical radioactive isotopes, practitioners were forced to start cancelling appointments.

Among them is Peter Tually, the director of Kalgoorlie Medical Imaging in Western Australia, who said on Wednesday the shortage had “brought the nuclear medicine profession to a halt”.

Tually said that on Monday his practice had received a “little bit of restricted supply”, though appointments at several other sites across WA have now been cancelled for later in the week.

“On Monday we flew up to Kalgoorlie which is the most remote nuclear medicine practice and we saw a lot of Aboriginal patients,” he said. “But we could only perform on a few of them.

“On Thursdays we fly out usually to Geraldton but that’s been completely cancelled. Several of those patients are undergoing cancer treatment right now and their specialist needs to know how the treatment is going based on the nuclear scans that we do. It gauges treatment for things like chemo and radiotherapy.”

Tually said the cancelled appointments and delays were “enormously concerning” for his patients.

“You do the best you can in regional Australia anyway,” he said. “Anything that delays us does elevate the risk of an adverse event.”

A spokesman for the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (Ansto) told Guardian Australia a batch of nuclear medicine generators “did not pass routine quality checks” on Friday.

“Generators contain molybdenum-99, which decays to technetium-99m, about 12,000 potential doses of which are sent to hospitals and nuclear medicine centres around Australia each week,” he said.

“On Friday, one of several routine checks identified that an amount of the parent molybdemun-99 was in the final quality control sample, which is why Ansto did not distribute those generators.”

The spokesman said the problem had been identified and was being fixed. He said production would started the “next week or so”.

“In the interim, Ansto has made plans to import medicine for Australians, with the first delivery due tonight, which will then be sent to key hospitals and nuclear medicine centres around Australia,” he said.

The $168m Lucas Heights facility, located in Sydney’s south, has been the subject of scrutiny in recent years after a series of mishaps.

A similar shortage occurred in September 2019 after the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (Ansto) was forced to stop production due to another fault.

That incident occurred less than three months after production was halted when two workers were exposed to an unsafe dose of radiation. Workers were also taken to hospital after a chemical spill in 2019, while another shutdown of production occurred in 2018.

The facility, announced by the federal government in 2012, aimed to triple Australian production of Mo-99, the parent isotope of technetium-99m. It was only granted approval to enter full-scale production in June 2019.

During previous shortages, Australia has sourced isotopes from the United States and South Africa.


Luke Henriques-Gomes

The GuardianTramp

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