THE NETHERLANDS, 10 August 2012 – This week in the reactor at Petten a test irradiation started for producing medical isotopes with low-enriched uranium as raw material. At the international nuclear summit in Seoul earlier this year, the Netherlands endorsed a declaration not to use high-enriched uranium any more in the production of medical isotopes. Petten is thus the first reactor in Europe to switch from high-enriched to low-enriched uranium for its production of molybdenum 99, the workhorse of nuclear medicine.

This is the first phase in an international project in which NRG, together with the supplier of the raw materials and the purchaser of the isotopes, is investigating whether it is technically feasible to produce medical isotopes in this way. In this phase, the size of the project is 1.4 million euros and it is providing 3.9 man-years of work in the Petten dune valley. This research fits within NRG’s strategy to safeguard the supply reliability of medical isotopes now and in the future.

Non-proliferation demands conversion

The Nuclear Security Summit was held in Seoul in March 2012. The Netherlands, France, Belgium and the US, the four cooperating countries in the field of medical isotopes, stated their ambition no longer to use proliferation-sensitive high-enriched uranium in the production of medical isotopes after 2015, on the condition that the interests of the patient were not threatened.

High-enriched uranium is difficult to obtain and the research reactor in Petten already switched to the low-enriched variety for its fuel in 2005-6. For the production of molybdenum 99, use continues to be made of high-enriched uranium to this very day. To be able to produce with low-enriched uranium, various technical modifications must be implemented. The preparation phase on the drawing board is already complete. The first test irradiation is now under way.

Schedule

After completion of the preparatory phase, the actual test phase has now started. Both the raw materials supplier and the customer are involved in the project. Besides the technical aspects, the medical registration must also be in order so that the end-product is approved for treating patients. The aim is that the production of molybdenum 99 in Petten will be entirely switched to low-enriched uranium by late 2015.

Results of test irradiation

After the test irradiation of the low-enriched raw material for molybdenum 99 in the reactor, the raw material is investigated in the Hot Cell Laboratories. In this post-irradiation study, it is checked whether the raw material has the required quality. Next, an approval phase by the regulatory authorities starts, as well as follow-up phases in the project in which the quality control of the end-product molybdenum 99 takes place.

NRG is an international nuclear service provider and as operator of the High Flux nuclear reactor in Petten is the largest producer of medical isotopes in Europe and number two in the world. Daily, 24,000 patients in hospitals all round the world are treated with isotopes from Petten. These are used in diagnosis, therapy and pain treatment. Besides this, from its high-grade knowledge base, NRG is an international nuclear service provider and as the operator of the High Flux Reactor in Petten, it is Europe’s biggest producer of medical isotopes and the number two in the world. Every day, 24,000 patients in hospitals throughout the world are treated with isotopes from Petten, which are used for diagnostics, therapy and pain control. Based on high-level knowledge, NRG supplies advice and services to government bodies and industry in the field of radiation protection, radioactive waste recycling and storage, and the safety and efficiency of (nuclear) power stations. Commissioned by the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation, NRG is also implementing a nuclear engineering research programme, focused on low-CO2 energy supply, the safety of current and future nuclear plants, and the protection of man and environment against ionising radiation (radioactivity). Over 400 people are employed at NRG establishments in Petten and Arnhem.