Darlington ready to produce medical radioisotope

02 February 2023

Ontario Power Generation's (OPG) nuclear power plant is set to produce molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) after Laurentis Energy Partners and BWXT Medical Ltd completed the installation and initial commissioning of an innovative isotope system.

A BWXT technician uses manipulators at a hot cell designed to produce Mo-99 (Image: Laurentis)

OPG announced its plans to use Darlington to produce Mo-99 in 2018, using natural molybdenum targets rather than the uranium targets traditionally used to produce the radioisotope in research reactors. The Mo-99 is to be used in new Tc-99m generators designed by BWX Technologies Inc.

The companies announced in July that they had reached the milestone of system energisation, enabling preliminary testing of the partially installed system to be carried out. Now all the remaining equipment has been installed, the companies said. Planned commissioning and preparation activities will now continue ready for commercial production of Mo-99, pending completion of validation runs and approval from the US Food and Drug Administration FDA and Health Canada.

Mo-99 is used to produce technetium-99m (Tc-99m), one of most widely used imaging agents used in nuclear medicine to detect illnesses such as cancers and heart disease. Both Tc-99m and the Mo-99 it is generated from in hospitals have short half-lives and need to be used quickly once they are produced, so a constant, stable supply of them is needed. The isotope is mostly produced in research reactors using uranium targets.

Previously, most of North America's supplies of Mo-99 were sourced from Canada's National Research Universal reactor, which ceased production of the isotope in October 2016 before its retirement in 2018, leaving hospitals reliant on imports. Once operational, the arrangement between Laurentis and BWXT Medical will be capable of producing enough Mo-99 to supply a "significant portion" of current and future North American demand, the companies said.

Laurentis Energy Partners is a subsidiary of OPG, whose president and CEO Ken Hartwick said the milestone was "exciting" for all the companies involved, but most importantly for patients in need. "Ontario's nuclear generating stations have demonstrated for decades their value extends beyond producing reliable, affordable, clean energy," he said.

BWXT Medical Ltd President and CEO Jonathan Cirtain said the partnership "leverages Darlington's industry-leading operational reliability, the expertise of Laurentis and OPG to provide irradiation services, and BWXT’s proprietary neutron capture process and innovative production technology."

CANDU reactors can produce isotopes without interrupting electricity generation. Darlington already produces helium-3 and tritium, and plans are also under way to use the plant to produce cobalt-60, which is already produced in OPG's reactors at Pickering. The new Target Delivery System which has now been installed at Darlington may in future be used to produce other medical isotopes, the companies said.

Ontario Minister of Energy Todd Smith said the province is leveraging its nuclear generation stations and supply chain. "Production of molybdenum-99 at Ontario's Darlington Nuclear Generating Station, a world-first for a commercial power reactor, will create a steady global supply of radiopharmaceuticals which help our healthcare system detect illnesses like cancer and heart disease," he said.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News