Somebody Ought To Do Something About That: Medical Radioisotopes

When we first organized IX Power last summer, we agreed that too often people would say “somebody ought to do something about that” and that WE would be the company that WOULD do something.

As part of that initiative I am starting a new series here on the IX Power blog called, appropriately enough, Somebody Ought To Do Something About That.

The IX Power Staff isn’t capable of doing everything we find interesting, even in the safe power and clean water spaces on which we’re focused. So, my hope is one of our readers will pick up on things identified in this series and provide some perspective. Perhaps YOU can even “do something about it.”

 Let’s start here. As reported just about everywhere (best recent summary in the New York Times article), radioisotopes for medical use are in short supply—and this scarcity will only get worse over the coming decade.

I have three assumptions on this subject:

  1. Medical isotopes are now a necessary and integral part of medicine,
  2. Thus, medical isotopes are needed in the marketplace,
  3. The two items above mean someone can make and sell them and achieve a reasonable return on their investment.

The NYT article says the coming drought in isotope availability is due to a lack of cash. WRONG! Lack of capital is never a valid reason for not doing something: if you’re smart enough, and enough people want it, you can always find money to fund a project, especially something so vital to modern medicine.

As I see it, the inability to stave off the coming dearth of these important medical tools comes down to two things: a lack of imagination, and (here we go again) a reliance on the government to solve or fund the solution. 

Medical isotopes are currently created using nuclear fuel classified as “highly enriched” (HE fuel), meaning uranium or some other isotope that is obviously highly regulated. Here is a classic lack of imagination. There are many ways to generate Moly-99 and other isotopes; someone just needs to invest their time and imagination to bringing one of these methods to fruition without relying on HE fuel.

The other issue is government. The U.S. Department of Energy swooped in to solve the problem, reinforcing the negative behavior only a large and complex company could dream up: “if it’s so darn important, we’ll wait for the government to give us money to do it.” In this case, the DOE gave money to industry to solve the coming isotope shortage. As the NYT article points out, GE dropped out after taking taxpayer money.

Now, I’m not talking about funding basic and applied science, where I do believe government should participate.  I’m talking about the continued dependence of large companies on government to minimize their risk on the backs of the tax-payers. This dependence on government largess runs way too deep in our economy. Instead of funding a whole new reactor, the DOE should fund dozens of ideas to generate medical isotopes without requiring HE fuel.

This commercialization method would advance an entire field of nuclear technology, and could cost much less than paying an existing DOE contractor to do something the market should take care of on its own. The people in the old communist regimes had to depend on their governments to solve problems. Capitalist societies are powered by private industry. Now think about this: which type of society has done the best with developing innovative solutions? Capitalist or communist?

Counterargument

If the taxpayers pay for the development, then the taxpayers should get access to the medical isotopes on a no-fee (nonprofit) basis. I bet my first approach would be easier to implement.

We’ll post your (thoughtful) comments and ideas on how to solve this quandary here.

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