Radioisotope waste recycling to begin in Belgium

7 January 2019

The radioactive residues arising from the production of radioisotopes accumulated on the site of Belgium’s National Institute for Radioelements (IRE) at Fleurus are to be recycled. The wastes, rich in uranium-235, will be processed at the Centre for Nuclear Energy Studies, SCK-CEN, in Mol.  

Earlier, the Court of Auditors had expressed concern about the radioactive wastes after IRE had again asked the Federal Agency for Nuclear Control (Fanc) to authorise a temporary increase in its storage capacity. “The accumulation of irradiated materials at the site in Fleurus may jeopardise the continuity of the operation," the Court had warned.  According to IRE, the storage capacity at Fleurus for storing these residues will reach its limit by the end of this year unless the containers are removed from the site. It has taken steps to ease the situation including acquiring several additional storage containers which will allow on-site storage until 2021.

SCK-CEN's BR2 research reactor at Mol plays a key role in medical isotope production providing 25% of global production of molybdenum-99. These isotopes are then treated using a chemical process at IRE. The residues from that process, which contain a number of substances that can be recovered, are currently stored in special containers at IRE's site in Fleurus.

A partnership (Recumo - Recovery of Uranium from Mo-99 Production) has now been established between SCK-CEN Mol and IRE, which will make it possible to make use of the high-level radioactive residues currently stored at Fleurus, as well as those that will be produced in coming decades. The partnership between the two public institutions, which runs until 2045, should provide 30 to 40 jobs throughout the period, mainly in Mol.

"To produce medical radioisotopes, we only use 1% of the highly enriched uranium provided by SCK-CEN," said Erich Kollegger, IRE director general. "We will be able to exploit these residual materials, retaining the know-how necessary for the safe management of our nuclear heritage in Belgium."

Eric van Walle, Director General of SCK-CEN further explained:
"We are going to recover this material, and dilute it by a factor of four or five, turning it into low enriched uranium and eliminating the risk of nuclear proliferation. Then we will purify it, which will give us low enriched uranium that can be used to make new radioisotopes or fuel for the BR2 research reactor.”  

SCK-CEN has been working on this project for several years now. An initial experiment was successfully conducted in 1988, but it involved very small quantities and was not continued because of insufficient funding and lack of urgency. "We have submitted a file to Fanc to adapt our facilities to the processing of large quantities and to start treatment around 2022," said van Walle. The transport of residues from Fleurus to Mol should begin earlier. The government has provided an initial allocation of €20 million ($22.8m) with an additional allocation of €8.1 million each year. The construction of facilities at SCK-CEN as well as operational costs are expected to total €255 million.  

The Recumo project embodies Belgium's commitments in the areas of nuclear non-proliferation, SCK-CEN and IRE said in a joint statement on 3 January. It will be carried out in close collaboration with the Directorate-General for Energy of the Federal Public Service Economy, SMEs, Self-Employed and Energy, and under Fanc’s supervision.

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