S Africa turns apartheid-era nukes into medicine

Last Updated: Nov 12, 2010, 00:00 AM IST

Johannesburg: South Africa has transformed apartheid-era nuclear weapons into a tool for detecting cancer and heart disease, with a new technology that could ease global worries about nuclear arms trafficking.

After voluntarily dismantling its weapons programme, democratic South Africa used the leftover nuclear fuel to produce medical isotopes used by doctors for imaging technology.

South Africa is one of the world`s top three producers of molybdenum-99, better known as moly, used in 80 per cent of the 50 million nuclear medical procedures performed globally each year.

Normally, moly is created with the same type of uranium as used to make nuclear arms, creating a headache for efforts to corral weapons-grade uranium.

But a new technique designed by the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) allows scientists to create moly using low-enriched uranium, rather than the highly enriched type needed for bombs.

"This is very exciting," said Mike Sathekge, chief of nuclear medicine at the University of Pretoria. "This is envisaged to have a huge impact."

In July, Necsa delivered the first shipment of the new moly to a distributor in the United States, which accounts for half of the world`s billion-dollar market for this kind of nuclear medicine.

The new technology is more expensive, but the United States has given a USD 25-million grant to Necsa and its partner, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, to make more.

That doesn`t mean drug distributors will be willing to pay the extra price, but Necsa chief Rob Adams said Washington`s worries about arms trafficking could change that.

"What we will be expecting is the erection of some kind of tariff barrier which would make it not as attractive to import molybdenum... derived from highly-enriched uranium," he told.

Jennifer Wagner, spokeswoman for the US National Nuclear Security Administration, said Washington was pushing to impose deterrents against moly made from highly-enriched uranium.

She said the NNSA "is working with the appropriate agencies to discuss all of the possible options to ensure incentives are provided" for the new technology.

Most of the world`s moly is produced at nuclear reactors in only five countries: Belgium, Canada, France, the Netherlands and South Africa.

PTI