Bruce Power harvests first HSA cobalt-60

26 March 2019

Bruce Power has completed its first harvest of medical-grade cobalt-60 produced inside the Bruce 7 nuclear power reactor.

Mike Rencheck addresses the Empire Club of Canada (Image: Empire Club)

Medical-grade cobalt-60, which is also known as High Specific Activity (HSA) cobalt-60, is a high-energy gamma-ray emitter and is at the forefront of innovative new medical technologies as its use can allow the delivery of higher doses of radiation to tumours with limited damage to surrounding issues. Cobalt-60 therapy is now being used as an alternative to traditional brain surgery and radiation therapy for the treatment of complex brain conditions through a specialised, non-invasive 'gamma knife'. This uses gamma radiation to focus microscopic beams of radiation on a tumour or other target, while minimising damage to surrounding healthy tissue.

Bruce Power CEO Mike Rencheck announced the first harvest of the medical-grade isotope in an address to Canada's Empire Club yesterday. "When it was announced the National Research Universal reactor at Chalk River was going to be retired in 2018, the medical community was worried there would be a shortage of life-saving medical isotopes," he said. "Bruce Power quickly developed a process to produce medical-grade cobalt-60 in order to prevent a shortage of this cancer-fighting isotope. By doing so we are ensuring a long-term, stable supply of medical isotopes, advancing human health and saving lives."

Cobalt-60 emits gamma rays and has for decades been widely used to sterilise medical instruments as well as in cancer treatments. It is produced by irradiating rods of cobalt-59 in a nuclear reactor, where they are activated by slow neutrons to make cobalt-60. According to World Nuclear Association, almost all the world's supply of the radioisotope for medical and sterilisation use is produced in Candu reactors.

The medical-grade material harvested from Bruce 7 has spent nearly two years inside the reactor, and will now be processed by Ottawa-based Nordion.

"Without Bruce Power's involvement, there would be a shortage of medical-grade cobalt-60 … by starting this process in 2016, our innovations have now enabled production when that supply is needed most: right now," Rencheck said. Medical-grade cobalt-60 is being produced in addition to the cobalt-60 that Bruce Power has been producing in its reactors for decades, he noted.

Nordion Inc, a Sotera Health Company, describes itself as the world's leading supplier of cobalt-60, with a geographically and technologically diverse supply network and plans to further diversify production in the future. In February, the company announced it had acquired technology patents related to the production of cobalt-60 in light water reactors from GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy Americas.

That intellectual property would enable cobalt-60 to be made in pressurised water reactors and boiling water reactors, Nordion said at the time of the acquisition. The technology's viability has already been demonstrated in a pilot program at two US reactors.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News