Tuesday, January 19, 2010

U.S. May Be Able to Produce Its Own Medical Isotopes at the Clinton Nuclear Power Station

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.


Anonymous said...

If this program is successful, basically every reactor in the U.S. could become a medical isotope producer.

Has there been even the slightest indication of such interest by other US power reactor operators? this is just your hyperbole, right?

Is the isotopes market large enough to sustain production from 104 US power reactors? or even half of them?

David Bradish said...

If you read carefully what I wrote, I didn't say it would be economical for all reactors to do this, only that it is possible. One reactor supplies 30-40% of the isotopes in the world. Thus, Clinton and other nuclear plants would be competing in a small market like you point out.

Just speculating here but sometime in the future, we could discover another need for the isotopes because we've lowered its price through competition. The point of the post was to highlight another diverse feature nuclear energy has to offer.

Anonymous said...

Most plants have gone to great lengths to remove every possible source of Co-60 from their cores, to reduce personnel dose. One notable example would be Stellite pins and rollers in BWR control blades, which tended to get very hot by the time you wanted to swap old blades for new. Of course, in this proposed scheme for Clinton, the cobalt would be well sealed in the dummy bundles, so maybe it's not such a problem.

This might be a perfect thing to do at Cooper station if they still have dummy bundles in their core. They already have experience designing and operating reactor cores including inert bundles that do nothing but parasitically absorb neutrons.

Anonymous said...

Cobalt 60 is also used a gamma source for industrial radiography (of welding that is over 2 inches thick; not mentioned in the article).