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South Africa leads way to safe nuclear medicine

Normal whole body PET/CT scan with FDG-18. The whole body PET/CT scan is commonly used in the detection, staging and follow-up of various cancers.
Normal whole body PET/CT scan with FDG-18. The whole body PET/CT scan is commonly used in the detection, staging and follow-up of various cancers. Myo Han

South Africa is expecting nuclear and medical researchers to beat a path to its door after it transformed nuclear weapons developed during its apartheid era into tools for fighting cancer and heart disease.

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The South African Nuclear Energy Corporation has designed new technology that could ease concerns over nuclear weapons trafficking.

South African engineers have discovered a new technique to create moly or molybdenum-99, which is widely used in medical procedures, with low-enriched uranium. The discovery means scientists will no longer need to use high-enriched uranium, which can also be used to make bombs.

Technology officer Gavin Bell says engineers in Pelindaba, west of Pretoria, where nuclear weapons were built by the apartheid regime, have developed a radioactive atom from low-enriched uranium that can be injected into cancer patients.

Lights visible under a scan show doctors where cancerous cells are growing. Using low enriched uranium reduces the risk of nuclear material getting into the wrong hands.

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

The United States is pushing to impose deterrents against moly made from high-enriched uranium and has rewarded the laboratory with a $25 million research grant.

South Africa voluntarily dismantled its nuclear weapons programme at the end of the apartheid. It used its leftover nuclear fuel to produce medical isotopes and became one of the world’s top moly producers.

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