Mol nuclear research centre to recover uranium from waste


Partnership solves problem of radioactive waste building up at a medical isotope production facility in Wallonia

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Radioactive waste piling up in Wallonia is to be recycled in Flanders, under an agreement signed by two national nuclear institutes. The recently agreed partnership is expected to create 30-40 jobs, most of them in the Flemish town of Mol.

The Institut National des Radioéléments (IRE) in Fleurus, near Charleroi in Wallonia, makes radioactive isotopes for use in medical procedures, from diagnosis to the treatment of diseases such as cancer. This is not just for domestic use, but helps millions of patients around the world.

But making these medical products leaves behind radioactive waste, which has been building up at the Fleurus site. Without a solution, it was soon going to run out of space. So, in future, the waste will be sent for treatment at the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre (SCK-CEN) in Mol.

"First we will dilute the nuclear waste, a kind of paste, so that it goes from being highly enriched in uranium to low enriched. As a result, the risk of military use disappears and nobody can make a bomb with it," said Eric van Walle, director general of SCK-CEN, in an interview with De Tijd. "Then we will extract the uranium through a chemical process so that it can be used again. The residue that remains after the purification of the uranium still contains a few radioactive products, and this will be stored by the nuclear waste management company Niras."

Return to sender

The recovered uranium will be reused in new products, or as fuel for SCK-CEN's research reactor. There is a symmetry to this arrangement, since a quarter of the radioactive isotopes used as raw materials at IRE come from SCK-CEN in the first place.

“This partnership provides a structural solution for the management of all of the radioactive residues stored at the IRE’s site," said Erich Kollegger, IRE's chief executive. "It will make it possible to recover those substances for other uses, while at the same time ensuring that Belgium retains the expertise that is necessary to ensure the safe management of this nuclear legacy."

Recycling should begin in 2022. As well as reducing the backlog of waste stored at Fleurus, the agreement will deal with new waste produced over the next two decades. According to De Tijd, the total cost for building and operating the reprocessing plant at Mol over 20 years will be €255 million. This money will come from the federal government.

Photo: A laboratory at the Belgian National Research Centre, Mol
Credit: Eric Lalmand/Belga