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What the atom can do and how it is used by Russia and the Asia-Pacific countries
Advisor to the Director General of the State Atomic Energy Corporation "Rosatom"
- Petr Georgievich, lately they are increasingly talking about an alternative atom - what do you mean? Can we use the example of Russia to outline the potential of radiation technologies in various fields of application?
- There are several major areas of alternative use of the atom. First of all it is, of course, medicine: both in terms of volume and readiness of technologies. Nuclear medicine includes diagnosis and therapy. It is mainly used in oncology, to a lesser extent - in the treatment of cardiovascular diseases, and to a very small extent, but with some growth potential, in neurology.
Nuclear medicine methods are several large blocks of work. The first thing that I would like to highlight is the production of radioisotopes, from which radiopharmaceuticals are further produced. Isotopes are produced by several enterprises in the country: both included in the State Corporation "Rosatom" and not associated with it. One of the famous is the Scientific Research Institute of Atomic Reactors (NIIAR) in Dimitrovgrad, Ulyanovsk region. Here, reactors produce certain types of isotopes: for example, molybdenum-99. It is the main isotope from which technetium-99 is made and is involved in 80 percent of all diagnostic procedures in medicine. Molybdenum-99, converted to technetium, is used in gamma scanner diagnostics. The patient is injected with a substance that, when scanned, allows to identify functional disorders in the body.
The Mayak plant in the Chelyabinsk region also produces a whole range of isotopes, in particular cobalt-60, necessary for radionuclide therapy. Cobalt is also made at the Leningrad nuclear power plant, and a number of isotopes are also being produced in power reactors. Isotope production is a separate sector: in Russia, in this global market, from 20 to 80 percent, for different types, since the reactor base allows us to ensure production of sufficient volume.
- Isotopes can be considered our main product?
- Perhaps, yes. The production of diagnostic equipment - gamma tomographs, positron emission scanners - a sector that is not as developed as the production of isotopes. For certain types of diagnostics, for example, for positron emission, we need isotopes that live for very short periods, in just a few minutes. And when such a need arises, a cyclotron is installed in the medical center - an accelerator for producing short-lived isotopes. In Russia there is a production of such cyclotrons, but the scanning technique is not done. We have missed this segment in 80-e-90, and therefore we are now forced to borrow technology. There are some prototypes, but this is not mass production, it has not yet been brought up to world standards.
- The second component of nuclear medicine is therapy, as you have designated. What can be said about this direction?
- The most common procedure is radiation therapy on electron accelerators. Today in Russia there are very large initial possibilities for the production of such accelerators - they are made by Novosibirsk, Dubna, the St. Petersburg Research Institute of Electrophysical Apparatus named after them. Efremova and a number of other companies on a slightly smaller scale. In Moscow, there are also enterprises that do this.
However, it must be said that nuclear medicine as a whole in Russia today is just beginning to develop, the first programs are being launched in this area. Over the past three years, Rosatom, together with the Ministry of Health, has been preparing a project to form a network of nuclear medicine centers throughout the country, including to place an order for Russian enterprises to launch new equipment lines in partnership with foreign companies. This is a modernization step, an opportunity to catch up with global industry in this area.
- But can we still talk about some kind of Russian know-how in nuclear medicine? Or are we everywhere "catching up"?
- I think we can. High-tech semi-experimental directions in therapy - there are several of them - I would single them out into a special group. This is proton therapy: those works that have been underway for forty years at the Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics. Some other Russian research institutes have similar experience. And neutron therapy is a very interesting work of Atommed in Obninsk.
Despite the fact that nuclear medicine is just beginning to develop in our country, tangible changes are noticeable. Thanks to the decisions made in the last two or two and a half years at the highest level, development has gone more actively. However, much more needs to be done: both in terms of creating infrastructure, and in terms of providing it with the necessary equipment, and in terms of training personnel and methods. So far, unfortunately, ordinal differences in the scale of application: the number of diagnostic procedures carried out using these methods, the number of patients, for example.
- What is the main effect of the use of radiation technologies, in your opinion? In other words, what is the competitive advantage of nuclear medicine over conventional medicine?
- If you take medicine, then in many respects the effect of the use of radiation technologies is achieved due to the fact that we diagnose diseases in the early stages. And we do not need to spend huge money on treatment and to cover his temporary disability. After all, there are bilateral losses: chemotherapy, for example, is a very expensive procedure. And besides, the patient is inoperable during treatment, which means that we still lose the employee who creates value. Diagnostic procedures carried out several years earlier easily show the first signs of the disease. Sometimes you do not even need to apply complex and difficult methods of treatment, you can solve the problem much easier. A 100% diagnosis removes a huge burden from the budget and social burden as a result of the retirement of sick people from the labor process. And, as is known, both cardiovascular and oncological diseases are massive.
Infrastructure is very important here. It should be accessible, it should be possible for everyone to use it as close as possible to their place of residence, without going for this purpose, for example, to Moscow. Therefore, it is necessary to create diagnostic and treatment centers in the regions. Here we are lagging behind other countries of the world, although 30 years ago in terms of the development of these methods were all at the same level. But while our colleagues were moving forward, we were waiting for something in many areas.
- What can an alternative atom, in addition to medicine?
- The second huge area of alternative use of the atom is safety. The scanning process using radiation methods can help us see what is inside the objects that are closed to us. For example, inside a container. Hence, all kinds of security and non-destructive testing systems: inspection systems for cargo, for searching explosives, weapons, drugs.
There are various types of systems. Accelerators are used somewhere: beams shine through the trailer passing through the frame, and a picture appears on the screen. This is one option, as they do, for example, in St. Petersburg. There is another version - with neutron generators: the emitted neutron causes a reaction in a substance, for example, in explosives, if any, and according to the isotopic composition released from this explosive at the time of this reaction, the scanner records the composition. This is not a transillumination, it is the launch of a certain process inside the material that can be photographed. In p
As a result, the computer issues a conclusion: for example, RDX of such and such a brand. Several companies in the country are engaged in these systems, and in particular, Skolkovo is now supporting one of such projects - an explosives detector.
Here it is worth adding that with the help of radiation technologies, we can see not only what is in the container or the railway car, but also what is inside the weld: are there any suspicions of cracking and, therefore, the danger of some kind of incidents or emergency situations.
- Is it about industry?
- Exactly. The third important line is the use of accelerators for solving various industrial problems: in the cable, petrochemical industries. This use of the properties of the flow of electrons to separate any medium for the cracking of heavy oil, to isolate the necessary materials from different compositions, etc. Industrial materials science - the irradiation of materials to give them the required characteristics of a higher order is an essential area. For example, irradiated cable products - have achieved a certain result in terms of strength and wire characteristics. The cement was irradiated - it became more dense. Fluoroplastic irradiated - received greater wear resistance. In this case, very often we are talking about the formation of the surface properties of materials: having an ordinary material, it is possible to achieve higher productivity and higher characteristics due to modification by irradiating the properties of the surface layer. This is a rather complicated process due to the fact that each material is unique. Great work, but, in general, a very promising direction.
In essence, the development process proceeds as follows: there are basic developments with accelerator technologies that are trying to find different uses for themselves in different directions. Therefore, medicine and safety are those markets that have already been developed and are dynamically developing today, and industrial use, food, water, and agriculture is a little less developed. In particular, in food - because of disputes about the benefits of the effects of radiation on food. But, in general, a substantial part of fruits that are brought to us, for example, from Southeast Asia, undergo this procedure without fail in their homeland: they are irradiated, killing microbes on the surface, so that the fruits are kept longer.
- It does not change the useful properties?
- Does not change. For example, somewhere this method is used to suppress the growth of bacteria in meat, fish, and seafood. Wheat is also irradiated after harvest for better preservation. That is, they kill only some bacteria, organisms that spoil the product. At the same time, the requirements for quality and safety of products are fixed by a set of international standards.
- Water, food, agriculture - fourth application?
- Yes, this includes: cleaning, increasing the productivity of agriculture, increasing the safety of products during transportation, sterilization for storage. And here, probably, it is worth considering the whole complex of issues related to ecology, since the area and the potential of using the atom to preserve the environment are enormous. We can not only sterilize medical waste, but also purify gases and drains, clean and sterilize solid household waste. However, on a massive scale of such systems does not yet exist. There are only experimental installations: for flue gas cleaning, for sewage treatment, for garbage processing. The necessary economic conditions for the use of the atom to oust other technologies from this market have not yet been achieved.
- You mentioned that in South-East Asia radioactive technologies are actively used in agriculture. Who else from the APR countries invests in the development of an alternative atom?
- Unconditional leader here, of course, Japan. This country has achieved high results in all areas of application of the alternative atom. From countries that have recently entered the market, I would single out, probably, South Korea. First and foremost, what the Koreans have succeeded in - they have mastered the technology for the production of accelerators and have learned how to make accelerators of various types. In South Korea, there are already companies that successfully sell these Korean products around the world. Koreans are also inventing new technologies: for example, they made a generator that produces technetium from natural molybdenum. This is a very interesting method that does not require, in fact, reactor enrichment: natural molybdenum is taken, placed in a special box where the reaction takes place. The output is technetium. This, roughly speaking, is a microproducer, a microgenerator, which can be installed in a hospital and receive technetium continuously.
In addition, South Korea has its own large source of raw materials for isotopes and serious educational programs for training personnel for nuclear medicine. In particular, this year, in May, training in radiology will be conducted in South Korea jointly with the World Nuclear Association (WNA).
If we talk about the main areas of application, then in South Korea the most common is the industrial use of radiation technologies, since the country is generally industrial oriented. I would stress today, if we consider new players in the alternative atomic market in the Asia-Pacific region (I remind you that we do not take into account Japan), South Korea can be safely put in the first place.
- What about China?
- China in the field of radiation technologies moves as it moves in all other industries: it localizes the plants of large companies that already have ready-made technologies, copies these developments, and then begins to build its industry. In this sense, China, in the field of the alternative atom, is not yet playing the development of a new one, but in the scaling of an existing one. Much attention is paid to the Chinese security systems. They have a special company Nuctech, which is engaged in this direction, various inspection systems. Nuctech is gradually entering the world market, leading price competition with the British and Americans.
- What about India?
- The main direction in which India is investing today in the field of radiation technologies is agriculture. This is their most problematic, least stable sphere. And if the germination or safety of the crop increases by at least a few percent, then the efficiency of this one of the key sectors for the country increases sharply. Given the heat, for India it is a major issue. In other areas, in addition to agriculture, the alternative atom is used a little. There are several experimental installations where basic technologies are tested. In this context, the Indians are interested in the Russian experience in working with agriculture, with water and with food.
- Summarizing our conversation, what is the main advantage of Russia in the field of the alternative atom over other countries?
"Our main advantage is that we inherited from the Union a large research base. The nuclear industry in the USSR had a developed infrastructure, hence the reactive and accelerating bases for research and serious prospects in the field of alternative use of the atom. Today, this market is much larger than the market of nuclear energy itself, and its development is going much faster.