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Isotopes for society


The nucleus of an atom contains protons and neutrons. However, some atoms of the same chemical element can have varying numbers of neutrons, giving so-called isotopes of that element. Most elements have both stable and radioactive isotopes. Radioactive isotopes of an element are commonly used as tracers in medical, biological, and industrial studies to gain information about physical and mechanical processes. In geology and archaeology, radioactive isotopes are used to determine the age of a sample while hydrologists can use isotope signatures to distinguish between different groundwater types.

In the health sector, isotopes are used for the diagnosis of heart disease, locomotive disorders and cancer, for therapy and palliative applications. Every year more than 30 million medical treatments and over 100 million laboratory tests are carried out using isotopes. In the environmental field, isotopes are used for the measurement of air and water pollution, and to understand effects and risks to public health and environment from certain management scenarios for radioactive waste. In the field of industrial safety, radioisotopes are used to detect flaws in steel sections used for bridge and jet airliner construction, and to check the welds on pipes, tanks and other structures. In consumer protection and safety, isotopes are used to study the quality of foodstuffs and their metabolisation by humans.

Isotopic measurements

Analysis of the isotopic “fingerprint” or “signature” of elements can reveal many things about the food we eat, about human physiology, about how carbon dioxide moves in the atmosphere and about the misuse of nuclear materials.

The European Commission carries out these accurate isotopic measurements, which are often used as references in development of new methods or standards. Typical studies carried out by the Commission concern levels of sulphur in diesel, mercury in fish, calcium or lead in bone, radioactive elements in the environment, platinum in car catalysts, and the source of nitrogen in plants.

Furthermore, isotopic techniques are also used by the European Office for Wine, Alcohol and Spirit Drinks in authentication of wines, and their use for the authentication of organic food is currently being studied.

The European Commission also supports nuclear safeguards by producing isotopic reference materials that help inspectors to verify nuclear activities. The isotopic fingerprint and the microscopic structure of uranium, in an unknown nuclear sample, can tell us where it came from as well as its most likely intended use. The European Commission is able to provide rapid analysis and detailed nuclear forensic investigation, which detects, fingerprints and tracks nuclear materials across Europe and beyond, assessing their possible uses and radiological hazards.

Health Applications

Boron Neutron Capture Therapy (BNCT) is a tumour-targeting form of radiotherapy, which is currently performed at nuclear research reactors, such as the High Flux Reactor located at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in Petten, the Netherlands. The High Flux Reactor is Europe’s leading radioisotope producer with more than a third of its capacity devoted to radioisotope production.

Clinical trials of BNCT for the treatment of glioblastoma multiforme (a very aggressive form of primary brain tumor) have been in progress at Petten since 1997. In 2004, a new trial for the treatment of patients with brain metastases of melanoma started. The results of the treatments are currently being analysed and more patients are anticipated to undergo this treatment at the High Flux Reactor in the near future.

Medical research is also benefiting from the Cyclotron at the Joint Research Centre in Ispra (Italy) which operates as a European research facility. The Cyclotron is a highly versatile particle accelerator and is used for the production of a wide range of radioisotopes for both nuclear medicine, and for industrial, biomedical and environmental research applications. The number of such flexible accelerator facilities is decreasing worldwide, with the facility in Ispra being the only light ion research cyclotron in Southern Europe.

Research is also being funded through the Framework Programmes to ensure that the medical uses of isotopes are carried out in safety for both patients and medical staff.

Aidan Gilligan | alfa
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