Work starts on Belgian isotope residue recycling facility

14 February 2023

A ground-breaking ceremony has been held in Mol in north-east Belgium to mark the start of construction of a facility to recycle radioactive residues from the production of medical radioisotopes. The RECUMO facility - which will recover uranium - is scheduled to begin operating in 2026.

The ground-breaking ceremony (Image: SCK-CEN)

Belgium is one of the five major producers and distributors of radioisotopes for medical purposes. Each year, almost seven million patients around the world benefit from a medical examination that makes use of molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) produced in Belgium.

Currently, more than 25% of those isotopes for medical purposes are produced in the Nuclear Research Centre's (SCK-CEN's) BR2 research reactor at Mol. These isotopes are then treated with a chemical process by the Institut National des Radioéléments (IRE) before they are administered to patients. The residues left behind by that chemical process still contain a number of substances that can be recovered. These residues are currently stored in special containers at IRE's site in Fleurus.

"We have been producing [medical isotopes] for more than 50 years, that is to say five decades of making a difference for millions of patients," said IRE CEO Erich Kollegger. "To keep fulfilling this public health role, we needed a structural solution for radioactive residues resulting from the production process."

In late 2018, SCK-CEN and IRE announced they were to collaborate on a project to recycle the stored residues. Through the RECUMO (Recovery of Uranium from Mo-99 Production) project, useable material will be recovered from the residues. The recovered low-enriched uranium can be reused as fuel for research reactors or as targets for radioisotope production. The RECUMO project will also enable processing of residues generated in the future at IRE.

In March last year, SCK-CEN received a construction and operation licence from Belgium's Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC) and environmental permits from the Flemish Region.

How the completed RECUMO facility could appear (Image: SCK-CEN)

Th ground-breaking ceremony on 13 February marked the start of work on the RECUMO facility.

"We are witnessing a historic event for IRE, SCK-CEN and Belgium, by being the only country in Europe that will have such a unique facility," Kollegger said.

Completion of the facility is planned for 2025. Shortly after that, SCK-CEN will commission the facility and start purifying the residues. The facility will be processing the current residues and those resulting from isotope production until 2038.

"We are giving a second life to these radioactive residues," said SCK-CEN Director-General Peter Baeten.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News