Harnessing SA’S nuclear expertise
NTP has proven the incredible potential of peaceful applications of nuclear technology
A company with a proudly SA heritage, NTP’S origins lie in the establishment of SA’S nuclear armaments programme under the apartheid government.
The SAFARI-1 research reactor became operational in 1965, when the country’s first self-sustaining chain reaction took place in March of that year. By 1973, SAFARI-1 was already producing small quantities of medical radioisotopes, almost as a by-product of its normal research activity.
During that same period, however, the country’s larger nuclear programme started to take a different direction as the apartheid government embarked on a local uranium enrichment programme that would eventually be used to prepare six nuclear warheads.
It was not until the early 1990s that the peaceful applications of nuclear technology became a priority for what was then the Atomic Energy Corporation, later Necsa.
In 1991 SA became the first country to voluntarily dismantle its nuclear armaments programme, when it signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. At the same time, nuclear medicine was becoming a growing area in the medical field.
The decision was made to convert part of the facility at Pelindaba to produce radioisotopes and pursue the radiopharmaceutical industry more proactively.
Technology that had once produced enriched uranium for military uses was now used to produce life-saving radioisotopes that could be used in nuclear medicine.
In 2003 NTP Radioisotopes was registered as a wholly owned subsidiary of Necsa and began pioneering nuclear medicine products for use in the diagnosis of conditions including cancer, cardiovascular disease and neuroendocrine illnesses. In 2009 the SAFARI-1 reactor core was converted from weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) to non-weaponsgrade low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel and a year later the first largescale commercial Food and Drug Administration-approved batch of all-leu Mo-99 was produced and shipped to the US for patient use. NTP remains the world leader in the implementation and production of all-leu products.
NTP pioneered the production and therapeutic use of beta-emitter lutetium-177 n.c.a (Lu-177) in SA in 2012, under licence from ITG in Germany. Lu-177 n.c.a. is considered one of the most promising new therapies for prostate cancers.
NTP has established a Lu-177 plant, which will soon provide a local source of the radioisotope.
“SA should be proud of what nuclear scientists in this country have achieved in the past half a century,” says NTP group MD Tina Eboka. “We’ve managed to turn the purpose of the reactor into a force for good and ensured that the nuclear medical products we produce perform a vital role in healthcare globally and enhance people’s lives. Our vision is to make medical radioisotopes more accessible to more people, particularly in Africa.” In addition, NTP has become a repository for nuclear and nuclear pharmaceutical expertise, and is a significant earner of foreign exchange.
The SAFARI-1 research reactor in the early 1970s, shortly after it began operating