In Iran, nuclear issue is also a medical one

By Thomas Erdbrink and William Branigin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 20, 2009

TEHRAN -- Ruhollah Solook, a retired electrician living in Santa Monica, Calif., was in a desperate bind. He urgently needed a kidney transplant, as well as a series of radiation therapy diagnoses and treatments. The nuclear medicine was available in the United States, but the kidney was not.

Solook, 78, an Iranian Jew who emigrated decades ago, never expected to find both in his native country. But there he was this month, recovering in an isolated room in Tehran's oldest hospital with a new kidney donated by a friend.

"They have saved my life here," he said. "Now I hope they can cure me."

In Iran, an estimated 850,000 kidney, heart and cancer patients are facing a race against time. Although these patients are in need of post-surgery treatment with nuclear medicine, doctors and nuclear scientists here say domestic production will dry up when a research reactor in Tehran runs out of fuel, perhaps as soon as this spring.

"We have thousands of patients a month at our hospital alone," said Gholamreza Pourmand, a specialist who treated Solook using technetium-99, a nuclear medicine used for diagnosis by body scanners. "If we can't help them, some will die. It's as simple as that."

At the heart of the looming shortage of nuclear medicine is a continuing controversy over Iran's nuclear program, notably a dispute over a deal with world powers that would supply fuel for the research reactor.

Like many other aspects of the program, the specifics regarding nuclear medicine are in dispute. Iran asserts that U.N. Security Council sanctions aimed at curtailing its uranium-enrichment activities also effectively target its medical sector. For example, Iranian officials say they are not allowed to import modern U.S.- and European-made body scanners, which can detect cancer tumors, because some of the parts might assist the nuclear program, and they assert that sanctions in 2007 barred Iran from importing medical isotopes.

U.S. and United Nations officials say Iran remains free to buy the isotopes it needs; a Security Council exemption allows imports of nuclear-related items "for food, agricultural, medical or other humanitarian purposes." They suggest Iran wants to produce its own medical isotopes to ensure a cheaper and more reliable supply in view of recent global shortages.

In any case, after the imports stopped in 2007, Iran fully powered up a 40-year-old, U.S.-supplied nuclear research reactor in Tehran. Initially operated half a day a week for tests, the reactor now is almost continuously in use.

In June, Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that fuel obtained from Argentina in 1993 would run out by the end of 2010 -- a projection now apparently moved up. But the U.N. sanctions prevent Iran from buying more fuel on the world market.

Iran says it can produce its own fuel, although that could provoke an international furor because it would need to enrich uranium to 19.75 percent -- a level technologically closer to weapons-grade material.

"We prefer to buy the fuel, in the shortest possible time," said Mohammad Ghannadi, vice president of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI).

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