European nuclear regulators have been alerted about a release of iodine-131 gas from the Institut National des Radioéléments (IRE) 50km south of Brussels in Fleurus, Belgium. The emission, estimated at 45GBq, began on the weekend of 23-24 August and was reported to the regulator Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (FANC) at 5:30pm on 25 August. The plant was shut down as a precaution.

As a result of environmental sampling of grass, one week after the incident FANC restricted the consumption of vegetables and milk produced within 5km of the plant. It declared that the incident was serious. The institute makes radioisotopes used in medical imaging and treating cancer, and is the second-largest world producer of radioisotopes for medical use.

Later, following European Community Urgent Radiological Information Exchange (ECURIE) procedures, the European Commission forwarded the alert notification to nuclear regulator contact points in all European Union member states and Switzerland.

The leak has been categorised as a Level 3 incident on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

Meanwhile, the Association of Imaging Producers & Equipment Suppliers (AIPES) warned that the shutdown of IRE and other radioisotope production facilities in Europe over recent weeks could lead to a shortage of radioisotopes for medical applications. The High Flux Reactor (HFR) in Petten, the Netherlands, was shut down on 21 August for at least four weeks and two other European reactors – BR2 in Belgium and the Osiris reactor in Saclay, France – underwent scheduled maintenance at the same time. HFR was not expected to produce any medical isotopes until 25 October due to an anomaly detected during an inspection of the reactor, operator NRG announced.

According to AIPES, although the Canadian NRU and South African Safari-1 reactors are maximising their output, after evaluating all alternative solutions, there is still expected to be a four-to-six-week period where there will be a shortage in delivery of technetium-99 in Europe. “This unprecedented supply crisis… highlights the urgent need for a European strategy in order to compensate the ageing of reactors dedicated to medical purpose,” AIPES said.

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