Belgium’s National Institute of Radioelements (IRE) announced on April 30 that it has produced its first batch of commercial molybdenum-99 from low-enriched uranium (LEU) targets. The first batch of Mo-99, whose decay product, technetium-99m, is used in nuclear medicine for diagnostic imaging, was produced for the U.S. health market. IRE said that the conversion to LEU represents a key milestone for the institute in the global commitment to end the civilian use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) for the production of Mo-99.
According to IRE, the production of Mo-99, which was done using LEU targets irradiated in the Belgian Reactor-2 (BR-2) at the Nuclear Research Center (SCK-CEN) in Mol, Belgium, was completed despite the additional burdens imposed by restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
What they’re saying: Belgian Minister of Energy, Environment, and Sustainable Development Marie-Christine Marghem, who is responsible for IRE, said, “Despite the restrictions related to the health crisis, IRE has continued its efforts and has made it possible to collaborate in the implementation of our national strategy for the production of medical radioisotopes. I intend to maintain Belgian expertise in this area while respecting our international commitments to fight proliferation. Moreover, the completion of this project underlines the importance of funding research dedicated to medical solutions.”
As part of U.S. efforts to reduce nuclear proliferation threats, the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration announced in February a joint commitment with Belgium’s mission to the International Atomic Energy Agency to minimize the use of HEU in civilian applications (NN, Mar. 2020, p. 22).
Next steps: IRE said that the conversion process to LEU radioisotope production will soon include the manufacture of iodine-131, which is used in the treatment of thyroid cancer. IRE is conducting the conversion to LEU in progressive steps, with full conversion expected to be completed by 2022 at the latest. IRE said that until full conversion is completed it will work to maintain a sufficient level of HEU-based production to validate its final industrial process for the purification of I-131 LEU, while also allowing its clients to update their regulations for LEU-based I-131 products.
In the coming months, IRE will dedicate a portion of its Mo-99 production to supply the U.S. market, later increasing its volume to supply LEU-based Mo-99 to the global market.
Global supply during COVID-19: According to an April 20 communication from a Nuclear Medicine Europe (NMEu) emergency response team, organizations involved in the supply of Mo-99 and other medical radioisotopes, including research reactors, Mo-99 producers, Tc-99m generator manufacturers, and ground transportation, have reported regular operations. NMEu, a European industry association, began monitoring the supply of Mo-99 in March after the cancellation of international flights interrupted Mo-99 bulk shipments from South Africa.
According to NMEu, air transportation continues to be the most significant bottleneck in regard to shipping medical isotopes, though producers have modified their processing schedules to better align with available flights.
NMEu also noted that, in a positive development, the airline KLM has agreed to resume the transportation of radioactive materials for certain flights. KLM was to begin such transports for an initial five-week period beginning April 27, pending regulatory approval, after which it would review the situation and determine if an extension was necessary. KLM stopped transporting radioactive materials on passenger flights in 1997 following a Tc-99m generator leak on a flight from Amsterdam to London.