Belgium starts producing Mo-99 using LEU

04 May 2020

Belgium's Institute of Radioelements (IRE) has produced its first batch of the medical radioisotope molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) using a low-enriched uranium (LEU) target rather than a high-enriched uranium (HEU) one. The use of HEU is seen as a potential nuclear proliferation risk.

The production of Mo-99 using LEU at IRE's Fleurus facility (Image: IRE)

The LEU target was irradiated in the Belgian Research Reactor 2 (BR2), one of three operating research reactors at the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre (SCK-CEN) in Mol, northeast Belgium. SCK-CEN is a key partner of IRE in the production of radioisotopes. IRE, based in Fleurus, said the first batch of Mo-99 will be sent to the USA. Mo-99 is used in hospitals to produce technetium-99m, which is used in over 40,000 procedures in the USA per day.

"Conversion to LEU will positively impact safety and security on site, two components inseparable of our IRE activity, since this new LEU production flow takes place in refurbished installations that bring many advantages in terms of nuclear safety and nuclear security for our teams," IRE said.

It said the conversion from HEU to LEU targets will be done step by step. In the coming months, a dedicated portion of the Mo-99 produced will be supplied to the US market. The volume will later be increased to allow the supply of LEU-based Mo-99 to all regions. The conversion from HEU to LEU targets is expected to be fully completed by 2022. The production of iodine-131 (I-131), an isotope that is used to treat thyroid cancer, will also eventually be based on LEU.

Preliminary consultations between the IRE and the Belgian nuclear regulator, the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC), on the conversion from HEU to LEU targets began in 2015. IRE requested in July 2016 to amend its licensing conditions to enable the switch. On 24 October 2017, the permit for the development of LEU production was granted by Royal Decree. FANC and its technical subsidiary Bel V ​​approved the start of Mo-99 production using LEU on 14 April this year.

IRE said that, despite the additional burden induced by the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 crisis, its teams could maintain and complete their planning to receive the authorisation from FANC.

"Despite the restrictions related to the health crisis, IRE has continued its efforts and has made it possible to collaborate in the implementation of our national strategy for the production of medical radioisotopes," said Marie-Christine Marghem, minister of energy, environment and sustainable development and minister responsible for IRE. "I intend to maintain Belgian expertise in this area while respecting our international commitments to fight proliferation. Moreover, the completion of this project underlines the importance of funding research dedicated to medical solutions."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News