International Response to NTP Mo-99 Production Halt
NTP Radioisotopes (SOC) Ltd (NTP) notified AIPES on Saturday 18 November 2017 that the National Nuclear Regulator of South Africa (NNR) had instructed NTP to stop Mo-99 production at its facilities in Pelindaba, South Africa. NTP had earlier reported to NNR procedural deviations related to a standard set of operating protocols during Mo-99 production. The NNR’s order concerned only NTP’s Mo-99 production cells and not the Safari reactor, which remained available to operate.
The AIPES Emergency Response Team (ERT) held a teleconference on Sunday, 19 November to discuss and coordinate international Mo-99 supply chain response to NTP’s temporary cessation of Mo-99 production (nineteen ERT calls were held as of the end of February 2018). Following each of the once or twice weekly calls, AIPES communicated to the European Observatory on Medical Radioisotopes (initially on 19 November) to inform international stakeholders of the situation.
Each ERT call NTP updated actions that NTP-license holder Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (NECSA) took to respond to NNR requests. International Mo-99 processors and Tc-99m generator manufacturers provided supply updates, and possible mitigating measures were considered.
AIPES President Jean-Michel Vanderhofstadt transmitted a letter on 27 November to the South African Minister of Energy urging an early NTP restart consistent with safety (NECSA management copied). He then traveled to South Africa 6-11 December for discussions and support with/to NECSA and NTP. This was followed by a second AIPES letter on 19 January 2018.
International supply chain members implemented various mitigating measures during the first three weeks with resulting minimal impact on international supply. However, by mid-December, spot shortages had arisen in some regions. The ERT then estimated a 1000-1200 Ci/week shortage (about 10-15% of international demand) for the remainder of 2017 and with additional shortages projected for January 2018 if NTP was unable to restart. At this point no further mitigating measures were possible as various issues limited the two European Mo-99 processors.
Consequently, AIPES notified the Government of Canada on 18 December (with a telecon on 20 December) suggesting that Canada consider activating emergency Mo-99 production from the NRU reactor. AIPES stated that generator manufacturers would need to contact the Government of Canada directly if they had interest in such potential Mo-99 production from Canada.
Optimism regarding a prompt NTP return to service proved unfounded, including after NTP was allowed to re-enter the Mo-99 production facility and perform cold commissioning with subsequent document submissions to the National Nuclear Regulator and a request to resume operations at the end of December 2017.
The OPAL reactor in Australia had four days of unplanned outage in late January (extending a planned stop) leading to an international Mo-99 supply shortage estimated as high as 1500-1700 curies at that time (approximately 20% of international demand).
On 16 February 2018 the NNR authorized a conditional re-start of NTP Mo-99 production, with three production runs successfully performed during the week of 19 February. However, NTP experienced technical issues the week of 26 February which prevented Mo-99 production and resulted in additional discussions with the regulator. NTP expects to resume Mo-99 production following a reactor maintenance stop the week of 5 March and to resume transition to regular production.
The NTP outage highlighted inadequate spare capacity in global Mo-99 supply chain, as the loss of a major Mo-99 processor could not be fully compensate at this time. Recent OECD Mo-99 supply and demand analyses were based upon self-declared maximum capacities for both reactors and processors, which often do not reflect actual (lower) routine production levels as well as day of the week requirements. In addition, delays in various projects that had been expected to be in operation by this time resulted in lower than anticipated capacity.