Transporting radioactive material for the medical industry requires speed and safety Radioactive seeds, destined to treat prostrate cancer, leave Chicago O'Hare airport in the U.S. on a typical Monday afternoon and arrive early the next morning in Brussels, Belgium.
After completion of customs formalities, the seeds are repackaged and put on another flight early that afternoon. They reach a hospital or clinic in Europe, India or South Africa early Wednesday morning.
Modern medical treatments, such as brachytherapy that uses these radioactive seeds to fight cancer, increasingly employ medical isotopes to cure diseases. Isotopes are also used in medical imaging to identify tumours or bone fractures, for example.
Transporting these radioactive particles, however, presents particular logistical challenges. Isotopes are highly perishable and must be delivered quickly. Molybdenum-99, for example, used in medical imaging, has a half life (the time it takes the substance to lose half its radioactivity) of just two and a half days or 66 hours.
“Timing is everything,” says Willy Van Bever, head of air transportation for SDV in Belgium. “We can't be an hour or two late because there is a patient waiting.”
SDV and specialist provider Isotopes Services International (ISI) have created a dedicated group of six people based in Brussels specializing in logistics for medical isotopes. Around half the radioactive materials SDV receives is sent by air to other countries including India while the other half is trucked to European destinations in partnership with ISI, says Van Bever.
Security is clearly vital. In addition to International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and Authorised Economic Operator (AEO) accreditation, SDV is a member of the European Isotopes Transport Association (EITA). Emergency procedures must be in place in case of accidents with SDV supplying a 24-hour response unit. Local authorities, such as Belgium's L'Agence Fédérale de Contrôle Nucléaire, must be notified in case of an emergency, Van Bever adds.
SDV in Belgium organizes logistics for around 900 shipments of medical isotopes every month, says Van Bever. Its clients include medical-science companies such as Canada's Nordion along with GE Healthcare and PerkinElmer of the U.S..
SDV also works for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), part of the United Nations, in Vienna, Austria. Last June, for example, SDV coordinated the road and air transport between Mumbai, India and Magurele, Romania, of a Cobalt-60 Gamma Chamber weighing six tonnes for the IAEA.
The high-security delivery included a special escort by the Romanian authorities from the Romanian border to the Horia Hulubei National Institute of Physics and Nuclear Engineering, Van Bever notes.
“Securing the necessary licenses for import and transit as well as timely coordination of all parties involved are essential steps for this kind of transport,” he says.