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Chapter 2: High-Flux Years

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RADIOISOTOPES AND HEALTH: TRACE OF HEALTH

The peacetime production of radioisotopes at the Graphite Reactor for industrial, agricultural, and research applications began in 1946 under the management of Waldo Cohn of Clinton Laboratories and Paul Aebersold of the AEC. In August 1946, the Laboratory's research director, Eugene Wigner, handed the first shipment of reactor-produced radioisotopes, a container of carbon-14, to the director of the Barnard Free Skin and Cancer Hospital of St. Louis, Missouri.

In August
1946, the Laboratory's research director, Eugene Wigner, handed the first
shipment of a reactor-produced radioisotope, a container of carbon-14,
to the director of the Barnard Free Skin and Cancer Hospital of St. Louis,
Missouri.
In August 1946, the Laboratory's research director, Eugene Wigner, handed the first shipment of a reactor-produced radioisotope, a container of carbon-14, to the director of the Barnard Free Skin and Cancer Hospital of St. Louis, Missouri.

During its first year of production, the Laboratory made more than 1000 shipments of 60 different radioisotopes, chiefly iodine-131, phosphorus-32, and carbon-14. These were used for cancer treatment in the developing field of nuclear medicine and as tracers for academic, industrial, and agricultural research. Many thousands of shipments of radioisotopes produced at the Graphite Reactor were made before production was shut down permanently in 1963.

Following the closing of the Graphite Reactor, the Oak Ridge Research Reactor produced most of the Laboratory's radioisotopes. The Laboratory also used calutrons at the Y-12 Plant to produce stable isotopes and cyclotrons to produce isotopes such as gallium-67, widely used for tumor imaging. The Oak Ridge Research Reactor closed in 1987, but ORNL's High Flux Isotope Reactor remains an important source of radioisotopes for medical and industrial uses.

The Laboratory's nuclear medicine program now centers on the development of new radiopharmaceuticals and radionuclide generators for diagnosis and treatment of human diseases, including cancer and heart ailments.

Today radioisotopes are used for diagnosing 100 million patients each year. This number gives credence to former ORNL Director Alvin Weinberg's noted statement:

"If at some time a heavenly angel should ask what the laboratory in the hills of East Tennessee did to enlarge man's life and make it better, I daresay the production of radioisotopes for scientific research and medical treatment will surely rate as a candidate for the very first place."

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