SA’s nuclear medicine treats overseas patients

2014-11-15 00:00

THE products from one South African nuclear reactor is believed to save a human life every three hours.

Despite the Hollywood-driven fears of its glowing hazards, experts said nuclear radiation was one of South Africa’s great contributions to the world, as the second largest producer of nuclear medicine. And proponents of the country’s trillion rand “nuclear build” programme say the lucrative medical exports, using local technology, were evidence that the country had the skills to generate major exports, from nuclear valves to waste disposal systems.

Using the radioactive product of the Safari 1 reactor at Pelindaba, NTP Radioisotopes already supplies 55 countries, and is set to double in size.

South Africa’s signature product is known as “Mo-99” — a mildly radioactive isotope used to diagnose and treat millions of cancer and heart patients around the globe.

According to Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa), South Africa was the only country with the know-how to mass produce the coveted ingredient. Other isotopes are used in MRI scanners and other diagnostic machines.

Meanwhile, in Cape Town, iThembaLABS, which houses Africa’s largest particle accelerator, is a leading exporter of another variety of “radiopharmaceuticals”. Dr Kelvin Kemm, CEO of Nuclear Africa, said: “It should be a source of great pride that South African nuclear medicine is used to treat patients all over the world.

“Every two seconds somewhere in the world a patient is injected with nuclear medicine from South Africa.

“On average, every three hours somebody’s life is saved. A significant export market for South Africa is the United States.”

Kemm said South Africa was one of the oldest nuclear countries in the world. “We have been in [the] nuclear [business] for over 60 years and possess a wide pool of nuclear expertise; we are not new kids on the block in this business.”

While nuclear power stations like Koeberg are designed to produce heat, research and multi-purpose reactors are designed to generate radiation.

In a recent briefing to parliament, Necsa confirmed its intention to build a second multi-purpose reactor, known as Safari 2, to dramatically expand the sale of medical isotopes.

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