Go-ahead for Belgian isotope production restart

04 November 2008

Belgium's nuclear regulator has given the go-ahead for the production of medical isotopes at the Institute of Radioelements (IRE) at Fleurus.


The facility, which manufactures a range of isotopes by processing 'targets' exposed to radiation in research reactors, had been out of action since an unexpected release of iodine-131 in August. This extended outage had added to other problems to result in a global shortage of materials for nuclear medicine.


A series of conditions stipulated by the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (Fanc) for the restart have been fulfilled, according to the regulator, but the restart approval remains conditional on the implementation of a series of longer term improvement measures. These include improvements to some parts of the production processes and facilities, strengthening the Department of Physical Control, staff training, the organization of periodic audits and external verification. According to Fanc, it is satisfied that IRE's directors have formally committed to provide the necessary resources to achieve these actions.


Fanc had previously approved a partial restart for the production of yttrium, which is produced in a separate process but in the same building, ruling that the yttrium extraction process carried no risk of the emission of xenon or iodine. The IRE plant produces iodine-131 for medical diagnosis and therapy applications, as well as the radioactive elements xenon-133, yttrium-90 and rhenium-188 for similar uses as well as molybdenum-99/technetium-99m for cancer treatment.


The plant was shut down following the August incident, when 45 GBq of iodine-131 was released as a result of the transfer of liquid wastes between tanks. The incident was classified as Level 3 – a 'serious incident' - on the International Nuclear Events Scale (INES) because it involved a release of radiation beyond the plant's boundary, although Fanc reported that the incident had no impact on the surrounding environment and population.


More serious consequences of the event came in its timing: the world's supply of medical isotopes was already reeling from the impact of near simultaneous closures at five key medical isotope production reactors. Most outages were for planned refuelling and maintenance, but the Petten reactor in the Netherlands will remain off line until February 2009 while repairs are carried out to primary pipework. 


…as IAEA helps avert shortage risks


The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has published a collection of recommended practices to help operators of research reactors, many of which are used to produce medical isotopes, to optimize the availability and reliability of their plants. Over two-thirds of the world's existing research reactors are over 40 years old, and according to the agency the report could help to avert a potential global medical emergency by helping operators to ensure the continued smooth operation of their ageing facilities. "No new isotope production facilities have been commissioned for several decades, and it will take time before new reactors start producing isotopes," said Ed Bradley, a nuclear engineer from the IAEA Research Reactors Group in the Division of Nuclear Fuel Cycle and Waste Technology who also developed the report. "This issue will remain with us for several years to come," he added.


The new report, Optimization of research reactor availability and reliability: recommended practices, was developed over the course of two meetings held in September 2006 and April 2007, before the crisis that overtook the world isotope supply situation when Canada's Chalk River was forced into an extended outage in December 2007. It focuses on operation and maintenance programs and best practices that have led to demonstrated performance improvements.