South African company NTP Radioisotopes, a subsidiary of the State-owned South African Nuclear Energy Corporation, has been presented with an Award for Outstanding Achievement by the US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), an agency of the US Department of Energy (DoE), the two organisations simultaneously announced in Pelindaba and Washington DC on September 22.
The award is for NTP’s successful and world-first conversion of Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) medical radioisotope production from using weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) to nonweapons-grade low-enriched uranium (LEU).
“By becoming the first major global Mo-99 producer to convert from HEU to LEU targets, South Africa and NTP Radioisotopes have demonstrated outstanding leadership in international efforts to minimise the use of HEU in civilian applications, while continuing to ensure a reliable global supply of this medical isotope,” highlighted NNSA Office of Material Management and Minimisation Assistant Deputy Administrator Peter Hanlon.
The award was presented to NTP group executive for operations Gavin Ball at the DoE/NNSA sixth Molybdenum-99 Topical Meeting, in Montreal, Canada.
“The logistical and efficiency challenges of performing both HEU-based and LEU-based production in the same facility for a number of years could only be successfully achieved by extremely detailed planning and monitoring,” explained Ball. He also stressed that successfully and safely carrying out the conversion, without disrupting the supply of Mo-99, upon which people’s lives depended, had required “an extremely competent team of people”.
“To achieve this level of production and technological success requires a unique combination of leadership, dedication and determination,” hailed NTP board chairperson Dr Namane Magau. NTP Group MD Tina Eboka praised the contribution to the project by her predecessor as MD, Don Robertson, who retired in 2015, affirming that it would “not have been possible without his initial vision and investment”.
The NNSA citation asserted that the HEU to LEU conversion displayed NTP’s “strong commitment to our collective goal of establishing a reliable, non-HEU-based domestic supply of Mo-99, making the world a safer place and providing crucial medical isotopes for millions of patients”. “Your leadership and ingenuity in completing this complex project serve as an example for industry and governments around the world.
“Minimising HEU use in reactors and isotope production is important to nonproliferation initiatives internationally and results in a safer world,” said Ball in Montreal, after the presentation of the award. “As far as NTP is concerned, conversion is important, as it demonstrates the technical competence of the country regarding nuclear medicine production and positions NTP as the world leader in this regard.” The company is the world’s biggest producer of Mo-99 using LEU.
South Africa, he pointed out, “has long had a history of ingenuity in the nuclear industry”. “Additionally, NTP has achieved various other world firsts, such as the record time for installing and commissioning a cyclotron facility in 2005.” (The cyclotron is used for the production of non-reactor-based radioisotopes for medical use. Like Necsa’s Safari-1 research reactor, it is located at Pelindaba.)