The NRC just approved a license amendment at the Clinton nuclear plant in Illinois for a pilot program “to explore the production of Cobalt-60… Cobalt-60 is a radioactive material licensed by the NRC for applications such as commercial irradiators and cancer treatment.”
As you may or may not know, there is a medical isotope shortage in the world because the reactor that produces 30-40% of the isotopes (Chalk River) is shut down. This has opened up a large opportunity to see if other suppliers can fill the gap, especially in the U.S. since we don’t have our own commercial isotope production facilities.
The amended license allows Exelon to alter the reactor’s core by inserting up to eight modified fuel assemblies containing rods filled with Cobalt-59, which would absorb neutrons during reactor operation and become Cobalt-60. The pilot program will provide data on how the modified assemblies perform during reactor operation. Exelon has informed the NRC it plans to insert the modified assemblies during Clinton’s current refueling outage.
The NRC staff approved the amendment after evaluating the potential effects of the modified fuel assemblies on plant operation and accident scenarios.
If this program is successful, basically every reactor in the U.S. could become a medical isotope producer. Not only would nuclear plants be providing an essential commodity to our society (electricity), but they would also be saving lives. Pretty exciting stuff.
Update, 1/19, 2:00 pm: Here are a few interesting stats from GE Hitachi who's teaming up with Exelon to test the program:
The International Irradiation Association estimates that 15 million cancer treatments are carried out using cobalt-60 each year in hospitals and clinics in over 80 countries. More than 500,000 brain cancer treatments have been performed using cobalt-60.
In addition to cancer treatment, cobalt-60 is used to preserve food, decontaminate packaging materials, sanitize cosmetics and purify pharmaceuticals. More than 40 percent of U.S.-manufactured medical devices, including syringes and bandages, are cleaned and/or sterilized using cobalt-60.