China starts mass production of carbon-14 isotope

22 April 2024

The carbon-14 isotope is being produced at the Qinshan nuclear power plant, China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) has announced.

The Qinshan plant (Image: CNNC)

According to CNNC the development means that the country can fully meet its demand for carbon-14, which is used in medical and scientific research and in fields including agriculture and chemistry as well as in medicine and biology. Radiocarbon dating uses carbon-14 to determine the true age of ancient objects up to 50,000 years old.

Apart from very limited production in experimental reactors, it was previously imported, with CNNC saying it was "expensive and supply could not be guaranteed - the shortage of supply has seriously restricted development of downstream industries". The irradiated carbon-14 target was successfully extracted from the Qinshan Nuclear Power Plant's heavy water reactor unit at 13:48 on Saturday 20 April.

Shang Xianhe, general manager of Qinshan Nuclear Power, told reporters: "This is the first time China has achieved mass production of carbon-14 isotopes in a commercial nuclear power reactor. From now on, it is expected that we can produce about 150 curies of carbon-14 isotopes every year, which can fully meet China's market demand."

The carbon-14 targets will be supplied to the market at the end of 2024 after being separated and purified, CNNC said. "This will effectively promote the development of China's isotope application industry chain and further establish and improve industry-university-research cooperation to develop commercial reactors. The research and development system for irradiation-produced isotopes promotes and drives the research and development of high-tech nuclear drugs and nuclear medicine industries by downstream medical enterprises, providing strong support for the development of the domestic isotope application industry."

Qinshan is China's largest nuclear power plant, comprising seven reactors. Construction of Phase I of the plant - a 300 MWe pressurised water reactor (PWR) which was the first indigenously-designed Chinese nuclear power station to be built - began in 1985, with the unit entering commercial operation in 1994. Qinshan Phase II is home to four operating CNP-600 PWRs, built with a high degree of localisation. Units 1 and 2, comprising the first stage of Phase II, began operating in 2002 and 2004, respectively. Units 3 and 4 entered commercial operation in October 2010 and April 2021. Phase III consists of two 750 MWe pressurised heavy water reactors supplied by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd and commissioned in 2002 and 2003.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News