Russia boosts cobalt-60 production

17 October 2017

Russia’s Research Institute for Atomic Reactors (NIIAR) has started the industrial production of ionising radiation (gamma) sources based on cobalt-60 (Co-60), which are widely used for medical purposes for cancer treatment.

The new production facility is located in the building of the SM-3 reactor which produces a range of radioisotopes, including Co-60. SM-3 is a high-flux water-cooled vessel-type research reactor with a neutron trap that operates in the intermediate neutron spectrum. There are 30 channels 68mm in diameter in the beryllium reflector, 27 channels 12mm in diameter in the central moderating area and 24 channels 12mm in diameter in fuel assemblies. The reactor was commissioned in 1961.

NIIAR director Alexander Tuzov said it was “an important stage in the development of the Institute's production base”, noting that more than RUB180m ($3m) had been invested in the project, which was undertaken within the framework of a Chinese-Russian joint venture, Beijing KiaE-NIIAR company of radioisotopes with limited liability”. Commissioning of the new installation will boost the Institute’s export prospects, he added.

The manufacture of sources of ionising radiation based on cobalt-60 had been ongoing at the Institute for more than 15 years, from 1995 to 2012 but in 2013 the original plant was decommissioned and then dismantled. In July the new facility was completed, licensed and commissioned for trial operation, explained Deputy Production Director Alexander Zvir. "Most of the equipment for the site and all construction and installation work were carried out by the staff of the Institute." 

NIIAR was established in 1956, and in 2008 became an open joint-stock company state research centre under integrated company Atomenergoprom (part of state nuclear corporation Rosatom). NIIAR is Russia’s most prominent research facility, with six research reactors on site.

Cobalt-60 production is also being increased at other Russian facilities. On 30 September 2017, the first additional cobalt absorber was loaded into the RBMK reactor at Smolensk 1 (a subsidiary of Rosenergoatom Concern, part of the Rosatom Electric Power Division) as part of a large-scale development programme to increase Co-60 supplies for medicine and industry.

Deputy Chief Engineer for Safety and Reliability at Smolensk, Alexander Abaimov explained that “the design features of the RBMK (high-capacity channel reactor) allow the loading and unloading of additional cobalt absorbers at any time, irradiating a large amount of starting material without disrupting the technological cycle”. The process of irradiating cobalt to obtain the desired isotope takes about five years.

Ruslan Smirnov, deputy head of the Radiation Technology Department at Smolensk NPP noted that the cobalt absorbers have two functions: economically feasible isotope production for the production of gamma radiation sources, and ensuring the safe operation of the reactor by maintaining the steam reactivity coefficient within limits set by the technological regulations.  At the end of 2017, some 20 cobalt sinks produced by the  Machine-Building Plant will be loaded into Smolensk 1, and in 2018-2019, additional cobalt absorbers will be loaded into the reactors at Smolensk 2&3 and also Kursk 4, also RBMKs.

For more than 20 years, the Leningrad nuclear plant has successfully produced cobalt isotopes at its RBMK reactors and this year also saw the start of a project for the production of cobalt-60 at the new BN-800 fast reactor at Beloyarsk NPP. Nuclear utility Rosenergoatom (part of Rosatom) plans to increase supplies of Co-60 to the international market to about 10m curies a year.


Photo courtesy NIIAR



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