What to do when the world runs out of options?

Tucked away behind the dunes, flanked by the sea and tulip fields, is Petten’s Nuclear Research Location. This Research Location is home to the High Flux Reactor, a nuclear research reactor used for the production of medical isotopes. These medical isotopes, such as molybdenum-99, are exported across the globe, with Petten’s Research Location providing about 30% of the world’s supply. However, at this moment in time the High Flux Reactor (HFR) is not operational due to safety concerns. This begs the question: with such a sizeable production and supply to the market at stake, how concerned should we, as ordinary citizens, be about the vulnerability of the medical isotope market? The answer is very. But, there is always hope in the hypothetical.

By Boudewijn Vijfhuizen*

Canada and The Netherlands supply around two-thirds of the medical isotopes used worldwide. Canada’s National Research Universal Reactor (NRU), its research reactor used for the production of medical isotopes, is scheduled to shut down in 2016. The High Flux Reactor in Petten is also reaching the end of its economic life, according to the Nuclear Research & consultancy Group (NRG) who licenses the reactor. While the reactor will remain operational for a decade or more than Canada’s NRU, the time to create a viable alternative to compensate an inevitably large drop in the medical isotopes supply is dwindling. NRG has its sights set on a new reactor, named PALLAS, but it would take at least 12 years between its inception and operation. So, when do we start panicking?

What makes the HFR unique is its capacity to use low enriched uranium in its operations, compared to high enriched uranium in other research reactors. It is imperative that the future research reactors meant for medical isotopes run on low enriched uranium, as the nuclear non-proliferation climate is changing to one in which high enriched uranium will be a thing of the past.

Hypothetically, if a multilateral initiative were able to secure the world’s stockpile of high enriched uranium, it would offer a good deal of favourable initiatives in the world of nuclear non-proliferation. For instance, Kazakhstan’s offer to create a Nuclear Fuel Bank, which would supply low enriched uranium to states seeking to pursue peaceful nuclear programmes. It would be run under the auspices of the IAEA. This initiative enjoyed the support of President Barack Obama in his address delivered in Prague in 2009.

In an effort to secure the stockpiles of high enriched uranium, why not offer Iran a way back into the international community? Iran has three nuclear research facilities that could be used for the production of medical isotopes. With a third of the world’s supply set to disappear in three years time, offering Iran access to this global market in return for IAEA inspections and a supply of low enriched uranium through the Nuclear Fuel Bank (if it exists by then) might be a workable solution to two scenarios which are rapidly running out of options.

* Boudewijn Vijfhuizen is Bachelor student of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Leiden University College and is one of the Nuclear Diplomacy Crash Course students of this year.