Question 1: What is IRE - IRE ELiT?
Answer: The IRE, or l’Institut des Radioéléments (Institutefor Radioelements) was created in 1971 as a public utility foundation. Its main activity is the production of radioisotopes for diagnostic and treatment applications in the field of nuclear medicine. These products are the active ingredients of many radiopharmaceutical medicines. For its part, IRE ELiT was created in 2010 as a subsidiary of the IRE and produces several radiopharmaceutical derivatives used in the treatment of certain cancers and in palliative care. More than six million nuclear medicine examinations are carried out every year thanks to the medical radioisotopes produced by the IRE.
In addition to its production activities, IRE ELiT is also involved in the radiological monitoring of the Belgian territory through the activities of its Laboratory of Radioactivity Measurement, and in the development of international projects in various radioactivity sectors through its Service of Radiological Characterization and its “project and business development” unit.
Question 2: What is a radioisotope?
Answer: Most chemical elements have a certain number of isotopes. For example, carbon has 15 isotopes, with the best known being carbon-12 (carbon’s most abundant isotope) and carbon-14 (used for dating biological tissues). The isotopes of a chemical element have the same number of protons (atomic number of an element), but different masses because they have different numbers of neutrons. Isotopes with an excessive number of protons, neutrons or both are instable and have ionising radiation properties (alpha, beta and gamma radiation emissions); these are said to be radioactive, and are referred to as radioisotopes.
Radioisotopes occur naturally, but can also be artificially produced by different processes such as neutron activation (neutron capture by the nucleus of an atom, resulting in excess neutrons) using a cyclotron, for example.
Question 3: What is a radiopharmaceutical product?
Answer: The radioisotopes used in nuclear medicine are called radiopharmaceutical products when they reach the stage of purity and quality that qualifies them as “medicines”. The fabrication of these medicines requires very strict and special measures in terms of manufacturing and control. All of these quality assurance measures relating to the production of medicines are grouped in standards known as “cGMP” (current Good Manufacturing Practices).
Question 4: What is nuclear medicine?
Answer: Nuclear medicine is a branch of medicine that uses the ionising radiation properties of radioisotopes/radiopharmaceuticals to provide information about the functioning of a person’s organs through the use of medical imaging equipment (gamma camera, PET scan, etc.) or to treat a disease. Radioisotopes are thus used either for diagnostic or therapeutic purposes.
Question 5: Can IRE - IRE ELiT be compared to a nuclear power plant?
Answer: No – the IRE’s processes and areas of work are very different from those of power generation reactors. Moreover, there is no nuclear reactor on the Fleurus site, and no radioactivity is produced. The company’s production activities are pharmaceutical-grade chemical separation and purification processes.
Like any other facility where radioactivity is handled, the activities performed at IRE - IRE ELiT are subject to prior authorization by the safety authorities. In order to obtain and maintain this authorization, it must be demonstrated and guaranteed that the proposed prevention means provide optimal and effective protection for workers, local residents and the environment, and that any potential effects of ionising radiation are kept at the lowest possible level.
Question 6: What is the difference between a site like the IRE and a nuclear plant in terms of the quantity of nuclear materials?
Answer: The IRE’s production activities are limited by the quantity of radioactive iodine present in its installations. In the core of a reactor of a nuclear plant, this isotope is found in quantities 8,000 times greater. This shows how different these two environments are. In a nuclear plant, electricity is generated from radioactivity, whereas at the IRE we make radioactive isotopes on a daily basis so that they can be used for medical purposes.
At the IRE, the risk is limited to the number of isotopes present on the site, and this number is very small compared with what happens in a nuclear plant.
Finally, there are more than a hundred nuclear plants worldwide, whereas there is only one IRE and only three or four other installations similar to ours.
Question 7: Does the operation of the IRE - IRE ELiT facilities pose any risk?
Answer: The various systems, and in particular the components that are important for safety, are subject to regular servicing and preventive maintenance, which may result in their replacement.
In addition, as for any production facility, and all the more so in the nuclear sector, equipment is closely monitored for wear and ageing, both by the operator and by the supervisory bodies and authorities.
Moreover, since the creation of the IRE, many improvements have been made to the existing facilities, and new facilities have been built to ensure and improve the level of safety.
Furthermore, IRE - IRE ELiT is currently making major investments in the areas of safety/security, and is working continuously on optimizing the safety and security of its installations, which remains the top priority for the IRE.
For example, we have an advanced system for monitoring and controlling gaseous effluents. This highly efficient system, which is unique in Belgium, uses the latest technologies available in the sector and is based on advanced analysis techniques. It provides, at all times, an extremely precise analysis of the qualitative and quantitative composition of the air in the chimney located on our site (accurate discrimination of isotopes in gas and aerosol form).