The Clinton nuclear power plant in the USA will begin producing cobalt-60 for medical and industrial use, according to plant owner Exelon and GE-Hitachi.

Without specifying details of time or technology, GE-Hitachi announced that its equipment is soon to be installed at the Clinton boiling water reactor in order to produce cobalt-60. The radioactive isotope is used for a variety of medical and industrial purposes including cancer therapy, sterilisation of medical equipment, food irradiation and materials testing.

It is produced by inserting a ’target’ rod rich in non-radioactive cobalt-59 into a reactor core where free neutrons will be captured, turning cobalt-59 into cobalt-60. After retrieval from the core, chemical processing can extract the cobalt-60 for manufacture into a useful radiation source.

Production should begin at Clinton’s next scheduled outage, with the first cobalt products probably coming shortly after the next outage once the targets have been extracted and processed.

The vast majority of the world’s cobalt-60 supply — over 80% — has traditionally come from Canada’s National Research Universal (NRU) reactor at Chalk River. However, this elderly unit has been offline for essential repairs for many months and will not return until around March this year. In general, the supply situation for medical and industrial isotopes is shaky thanks to a reliance on this kind of ageing research reactor.

Clinton will join other power reactors that produce cobalt-60 around the world: Embalse and Atucha 1 in Argentina, units 1 and 2 at Bruce B in Canada; Qinshan 1 and 2 in China; Wolsing 1 and 2 in South Korea; and Leningrad 1 in Russia. All of these are pressurized heavy water reactors apart from Leningrad, which is an RBMK-design. Clinton will be the first boiling water reactor to produce cobalt-60.

Exelon Nuclear president Charles Pardee said: “We view this as an opportunity for Exelon to support an important medical technology that saves people’s lives.”

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