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PET Cyclotron and Radiopharmacy Facility

About the cyclotron facility

BC Cancer operates a cyclotron/radiopharmacy at its Vancouver location. Licensed by Health Canada and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the cyclotron/radiopharmacy produces both clinical and research radiotracers for the publicly-funded provincial Molecular Imaging and Therapy program.

What is a cyclotron?

A cyclotron is a machine used to make short-lived radioactive isotopes that can be used for medical imaging or research.  A cyclotron does this by accelerating particles (such as hydrogen atoms) to very high speeds and focusing them on a target substance where a reaction takes place that produces a radioactive element. Both the accelerated particles and target substance are specifically chosen to produce the desired radioactive element.

BC Cancer's ACSI TR-19 Production Cyclotron
BC Cancer's ACSI TR-19 Production Cyclotron

For more information on the (ACSI) TR-19 cyclotron, visit the Advanced Cyclotron Systems Inc. website.

How are the products of the cyclotron used?

Once produced in the cyclotron, the radioactive material is transferred to a shielded "hot cell" where it is run through sophisticated chemistry modules to produce biological tracers.  These tracers can be used in medical imaging to more accurately diagnose and manage disease.

The main isotope produced by BC Cancer's cyclotron is Fluorine-18 (F-18). This is used in the tracer Fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG); which maps glucose metabolism in the body. F-18 is a radioactive isotope that decays through the emission of positrons. These positrons are the key to Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans that are used daily around the world for cancer diagnosis and cancer treatment planning.

One of BC Cancer's PET/CT Scanners
One of BC Cancer's PET/CT Scanners

In addition to producing F-18, BC Cancer also produces other radioactive isotopes such as Carbon-11 (C-11), Gallium-68 (Ga-68), and Technetium-99m (Tc-99m) for medical imaging studies. Nitrogen-13 (N-13) is also produced as a by-product in making some of these isotopes.

Main Isotopes Produced by the BC Cancer Production Cyclotron

% Activity Remaining


10 minutes
1 Hour

3 Hours

1 Day

3 Days

1 Month

C-1120 minutes13%0%0%0%0%
Ga-6868 minutes54%16%0%0%0%
F-18110 minutes69%32%0%0%0%
Tc-99m6 hours89%71%6%0%0%
Zr-893.3 days99%97%81%53%0%

Is a cyclotron safe?

As a device producing radioactivity, cyclotrons require licensing through the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC).  Cyclotrons are not a new technology and the CNSC has extensive experience with ensuring safety of staff and the general public from cyclotron facilities across Canada. 

Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC)The design of the entire cyclotron facility, including safety considerations for staff and the general public, has been reviewed and approved by the CNSC. The facility has multiple levels of shielding, protection and monitoring to ensure safe operation. 

For more information, visit the CNSC website.

How do we ensure safe operation of the cyclotron?

The walls, ceiling, and door of the cyclotron "vault" are approximately 4 feet thick of specialized concrete to protect workers and the general public from radiation exposure. This is in addition to the lead shielding that already surrounds the targets attached to the cyclotron itself.

Cyclotron Vault Door
Cyclotron Vault Door

Cyclotron and radiopharmacy staff work with radioisotopes in lead-shielded "hot cells" or behind lead-shielded "L-Block" workstations to minimize their radiation exposure.

Lead-Shielded Hot Cell
L-Block Workstations
Lead-Shielded Hot Cell and L-Block Workstations

Radiation Monitoring

The facility has a sophisticated radiation monitoring system with over 30 radiation detectors monitored and controlled by a centralized control computer.

Computer Controlled Radiation Monitoring System
Computer Controlled Radiation Monitoring System
Computer Controlled Radiation Monitoring System

Handheld, battery-operated, radiation survey meters and contamination meters are available throughout the cyclotron facility.

Handheld, Battery-Operated Radiation Meters
Handheld, Battery-Operated Radiation Meters
Handheld, Battery-Operated Radiation Meters

All staff and visitors to the facility must use a sensitive radiation detector "exit monitor" to prevent accidental removal of any radioactive material from the facility.

Radiation Detection Exit Monitor
Radiation Detection Exit Monitor

All staff and visitors to the cyclotron facility are issued direct reading dosimeters enabling instant detection and readout of radiation exposure. In addition, all staff members wear personal dosimeters to monitor their radiation exposure to their extremities and body.  All dosimeter results are monitored by Radiation Safety Officers.

Direct Reading Radiation Dosimeters
Direct Reading Radiation Dosimeters

The facility has a one-of-a-kind maze-style containment system which safely holds any radioactive gases until they are decayed to non-radioactive elements. If any radioactive gas is detected in the facility exhaust system, airflow is immediately diverted into the containment system and held until no more radioactivity can be detected. Below is a drawing of this system.PET Cyclotron and Radiopharmacy Facility containment diagramFail-safe Design
  • The cyclotron itself has several built-in safety interlock systems that prevent the cyclotron from operating if all safety systems are not operational or engaged. 
  • In the event of a catastrophic event, such as an earthquake, the cyclotron safety systems will shut off the cyclotron with absolutely no risk of explosion or meltdown. It is important to note that the cyclotron cannot operate or produce radioactivity without electrical power.
Production of Small Amounts of Short-Lived Isotopes
  • As mentioned above, most of the isotopes produced by the cyclotron have a relatively short half-life and quickly decay to products that are not radioactive.  The longest-lived isotope produced by the BC Cancer cyclotron is Zirconium-89 (Zr-89) with a half-life of 3.3 days meaning that only 0.1% of this radioisotope will remain after a period of 33 days.
  • The amounts of radioactivity regularly produced by the cyclotron are relatively small in scale.  A typical production run of F-18, for example, amounts to less than 5 mL of F-18 produced (less than the volume of a coffee creamer).
A Typical F-18 Run Produces Less than 5 mL of F-18

  • An independent study specific to the BC Cancer cyclotron facility and the surrounding urban location demonstrated that even in the highly unlikely event of a catastrophic system failure where an entire production run (at maximum capacity) were to be released into the atmosphere, the risk to public safety would be minimal with the radiation exposure to neighbouring residents being less than the radiation exposure of an average flight from Vancouver to Toronto. 
Staff Training and Personal Protective Equipment
  • All staff members in the facility are highly trained in the safe handling of radioactive materials and receive mandatory refresher safety training on a regular basis.
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE) is mandatory for all staff and visitors entering the cyclotron facility. Additional PPE is used when staff are working directly with radioactive materials.
Personal Protective Equipment
Personal Protective Equipment
Personal Protective Equipment

System Testing, Auditing and Inspections
  • All cyclotron safety systems are tested on a regular basis to ensure they are functioning according to design. 
  • The cyclotron facility radiation safety program is audited by a Radiation Safety Officer from another BC Cancer centre every 2-years.
  • The CNSC conducts regular inspections of the cyclotron facility radiation safety program to ensure safety and compliance with federal safety regulations.
Where can I get more information on radiation and radiation safety in Canada?
The CNSC has excellent educational resources about radiation and radiation safety in Canada.
Public information program

The BC Cancer Molecular Imaging and Therapy public information program provides open and transparent access for the public to obtain desired operational, environmental and safety information about the Cyclotron facilities and activities. 

The primary goal of this public information program is to ensure that information related to health, safety and security of persons and the environment, and other issues associated with the activities of this nuclear facility are effectively communicated to the public. 

At BC Cancer our mission is:

  • to reduce the incidence of cancer
  • to reduce the mortality rate of people with cancer
  • to improve the quality of life of people living with cancer

The work being conducted in the Molecular Imaging and Therapy department at BC Cancer – Vancouver is key in all aspects of the BC Cancer mission statement.  This work includes the production of both clinical and research radioactive tracers.

Following the ingrained BC Cancer culture of safety, the production cyclotron facility within the Molecular Imaging and Therapy department at the Vancouver location has been designed using ALARA principles to substantially minimize the potential for radioactive releases.  This design employs a myriad of redundant safety systems that are tested on a regular basis to prevent such releases.  In our 5-year history of operating the cyclotron, we have not had any accidental releases. 

The primary objectives of this public information and disclosure program are to ensure that persons living or working in proximity to the Vancouver Centre are aware:

  • of the importance of the work that is being performing within the Molecular Imaging and Therapy department
  • of the potential risk (albeit small) that is involved in carrying out this important work
  • that their health, safety and security are being protected by the Vancouver Centre radiation safety program
  • of any events that could have potential consequences from the point of view of radiation protection or safety.
Frequently asked questions

For answers to frequently asked questions, click "+" on the questions below.

A cyclotron is a particle accelerator that produces the radioactive component of the tracer used in PET/CT imaging. It produces a particle beam which focuses on a specifically chosen target substance (most often Oxygen-18 enriched water). The reaction between the particle beam and the enriched water creates the radionuclide F-18 which is then run through a sophisticated chemistry module to produce a radioactive tracer, such as Fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG). FDG is typically used to scan clinical oncology patients to help guide cancer therapy or surgical decision-making.


PET stands for Positron Emission Tomography. It is a non-invasive, whole-body imaging procedure that, when combined with Computed Tomography (CT), allows physicians to more accurately diagnose and manage disease, particularly cancer.


PET/CT benefits both patients and health care professionals. It is a single test that is highly effective at showing the presence and progress of disease and how well the patient is responding to treatment. It provides health care professionals with a tool to better diagnose disease and enhance/tailor treatment planning to ensure the most effective therapy is chosen.

A cyclotron is a particle accelerator that produces the radioactive component of the tracer. The radiopharmacy lab is responsible for compounding the radioactive component to a carrier to ultimately produce an injectable radiopharmaceutical that can trace certain biological pathways in the body. The cyclotron and radiopharmacy need to be in close proximity to the imaging center (PET/CT scanners) due to the relatively short half-lives of the radiotracers.


FDG, the radiotracer most commonly used in PET/CT scanning, has been tested and safely used in literally millions of scans globally. It has a short half-life, meaning it is eliminated very quickly from the body. Also, very small quantities are used for each scan and the dose is adjusted for patient weight. Within 24 hours of having completed a PET/CT scan, there is no measurable amount of radioactivity left in the body.


Due to the short half-life of FDG, the cyclotron facility must produce it on a daily basis and cannot produce bulk quantities that can be stored for future use. The facility can only produce product that is required for that particular day. What small quantity might remain after daily clinical scanning is complete is stored in a lead-lined container in a secure-access room. This FDG will have decayed to background in 24 hours and can then be safety discarded with normal trash.


BC Cancer has maintained a current cyclotron operating license since the facility opened in 2010. The license was issued by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC).


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