Isotope reactor steps up to the plate

02 May 2013

BR2 top view reference (SCK-CEN) 460x300
BR2 from above (Image: SCK-CEN)

Belgium's BR2 reactor is to run an additional production cycle to guarantee supplies of vital medical isotopes while the Netherlands' HFR reactor remains out of action due to unforeseen problems.

The extra cycle runs from 25 April to 15 May, said BR2 operator SCK-CEN. This will produce mainly molybdenum-99, which is used in hospitals to produce the technetium-99m used in 80% of medical examinations using radioisotopes. It will also produce various isotopes used in cancer treatments during the period, guaranteeing supplies to hospitals in Belgium and other countries in cooperation with radiopharmaceutical company Covidien.

Eight reactors around the world are the main producers of medical isotopes, but the short-lived nature of the materials themselves means that a constant supply is vital. HFR, at Petten in the Netherlands, normally supplies some 60% of Europe's molybdenum-99 but this was shut down for scheduled maintenance in November 2012 and has been kept off line after of an anomaly was discovered in its water cooling system. Operator NRG currently does not anticipate restarting the reactor before the second half of May.

Most of the world's main molybdenum-99 production reactors have been operating since the 1960s or, in the case of the Chalk River NRU, the 1950s. Australia's Opal, which started up in 2006, is a notable exception. The implications for security of supply of unexpected or extended outages was illustrated in 2010: at the same time as Canada's NRU research reactor was off-line for urgent repairs, it became clear that HFR was also in need of major maintenance. The unavailability of two of the world's major isotope production reactors at the same time led to a worldwide shortage of the vital isotopes and the postponement of many thousands of medical procedures.

In response to the 2010 crisis, SCK-CEN increased its production capacity by 50%, to now supply 25% of the world's molybdenum. At peak times, the BR2 reactor at Mol is capable of supplying up to 65% of global weekly demand. Meanwhile last year in the Netherlands, the government gave its approval for the construction of a replacement for HFR. The new reactor, known as Pallas, is not likely to be operational until around 2024, by which time HFR, which started operations in 1960, will be over 60 years old.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News