The Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff has approved a licence amendment allowing a pilot programme to explore the production of cobalt-60 at Exelon’s Clinton Nuclear Power Station in Illinois.

The amended Clinton licence gives Exelon permission to generate and transfer cobalt-60 under the NRC’s regulations for “byproduct” material. Cobalt-60 is a radioactive material licensed by the NRC for applications such as commercial irradiators and cancer treatment. The International Irradiation Association estimates that 15 million cancer treatments are carried out using Co-60 each year in hospitals and clinics in over 80 countries.

Exelon can now change 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 new fuel will be loaded into the reactor during Clinton’s current maintenance and refuelling outage.

The NRC’s decision to allow the licence amendment was welcomed by industry. “Without key isotopes like cobalt-60, potentially life-threatening diseases could go untreated,” said Dr. Robert Atcher, former president of the Society of Nuclear Medicine. “Developing a US domestic supply of isotopes capable of meeting demands is imperative to the well-being of the population.”

Today US national laboratories produce a small amount of cobalt-60, however there is no large-scale, commercial, domestic production source.

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