Medical community eyes reactor shutdowns

28 August 2008

The operating schedules of five research reactors have caused a certain amount of alarm in the nuclear medicine community, while a production factory in Belgium is closed after an incident. It was about nine months ago that a problem at Canada's main production reactor led to the cancellation of thousands of procedures.


Five key reactors in Belgium, Canada, France, South Africa and the Netherlands, which between them provide about 85% of the world's cobalt-60 supply and virtually all of the technetium-99m and molybdenum-99, are involved. All of them are scheduled for maintenance and refuelling stops within weeks. In addition, an isotope production factory in Belgium has been shut down after an emission of on of its products, iodine-131.


The High Flux Reactor (HFR) at Petten in the Netherlands is currently in an extended maintenance outage. A spokesman for the unit's operator, NRG, said an anomaly was spotted during the inspection at the end of August's operational run, and operation in September was cancelled for checks to take place. NRG said it would know more about when HFR could restart in the middle of next week.


In Canada, health officials have been liaising closely with NRG and isotope suppliers because that country's main source of medical isotopes is also offline for maintenance until 29 August. Chalk River's National Research Universal (NRU) reactor was at the centre of a crisis last year when it was ordered to close for safety upgrades. This lead to a dire shortage of isotopes, which only have a shelf life of a few days.


Since that crisis, information sharing between reactor operators, isotope suppliers, the government and medical establishments was stepped up in Canada with a 'new protocol'. In a statement, health minister Tony Clement said the health and safety of Canadians was his top priority.


While the BR-2 reactor at the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre is shut down for refuelling, as is the Osiris unit in France, South Africa's Safari-1 unit has modified its operating schedule. Operator Necsa said that today Safari-1 is operating at its maximum 20 MW capacity, but it will be shut down for maintenance on 30 August. The shutdown has been put back by 12 hours, as has its restart on 4 September, to help manage tightness in isotope supply.