1205th Ordinary General Meeting

"The unexpected nuclear renaissance: nuclear techniques benefiting mankind"

Dr Adi Paterson, CEO, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO)

Wednesday 7 November 2012 at 6.30 pm

Union, University and Schools Club, 25 Bent Street, Sydney

Meeting report by Donald Hector

The Society was privileged to have Dr Paterson, chief executive officer of ANSTO, address our meeting on Wednesday 7 November in Sydney.

There has been great excitement in recent months with reports that two experiments at the CERN Large Hadron Collider (LHC) had detected phenomena indicating the existence of the Higgs boson. The CERN LHC is the current pinnacle of cyclotron accelerator technology that was first developed in the 1930s. Not only is this technology at the forefront of experimental physics but the spin-offs, such as PET imaging and hadron therapy have been major developments in medical diagnosis and treatment. There are now over 860 cyclotrons worldwide, with 11 of these in Australia.

The cyclotron is one of two great traditions in nuclear physics – the other is the research nuclear reactor. Generally, nuclear isotopes that are useful for diagnosis can be generated in cyclotrons while the radioactive isotopes for therapy are more often produced in nuclear reactors, such as the Opal Research Reactor at Lucas Heights. An example of the use of isotopes in the diagnosis of disease is early detection of Alzheimer's dementia. Alzheimer's is difficult to diagnose in its early stages and, often, can only be positively identified post-mortem. However, positron emission tomography (PET) scanning technology can detect markers that appear to be associated with abnormal amyloid-beta production, a phenomenon that appears to be associated with Alzheimer's disease. PET diagnostic techniques utilise a radiopharmaceutical compound called florbetapir-fluorine-18 that contains the radionuclide fluorine-18. Fluorine-18 is a radioisotope of fluorine that emits positrons as it decays and these can be detected in a PET scanner. It has a short half-life (about 110 minutes) and has essentially disappeared from the body in about 12 hours. Similar techniques are also being used in diagnosing the effects haemorrhagic stroke and progress of insulin cells in diabetes patients.

The Opal Research Reactor at Lucas Heights is an important source of short half-life isotopes used for a variety of medical and non-medical purposes. These can be as diverse as researching the structure and physics of new generation batteries, sensing explosives using photo luminescent films, understanding the morphology and structure of organic light-emitting diodes (an important new technology), studying the structure of cell membranes, stress evaluation in steel (for example, analysing the heads of railway track in order to predict failure). Medical treatment is a critical role for the Opal Reactor, particularly for supplying short-lived isotopes for radiation treatment of cancer patients.

The other important facility in Australian nuclear physics is the Australian Synchrotron that is being used for medical imaging and therapy and a range of other applications. One of the critical applications for the synchrotron is protein crystallography. This technology emerged from Nobel Prize-winning work in determining the structure of various proteins, that could not be done otherwise.

The important message that we were left with is that the Australian Synchrotron and the Opal Reactor are complimentary technologies. Together they provide critically important resources in a range of Australian industries from medical diagnosis and treatment to latest technologies across a variety of science and engineering applications. Furthermore, they give us a place at the table internationally in leading-frontier "big science".

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