NTP Radioisotopes has gone from being a small-scale local producer of radiation products to a leading international supplier of industrial and medical radioisotopes.

Although NTP was only formally incorporated as a state-owned company in October 2003, our story goes back several decades – starting in the late 1950s, with the inception of South Africa’s nuclear research and technology programme and the construction of the SAFARI-1 nuclear reactor.

SAFARI-1 was built primarily as a research reactor, but its high flux operation meant it was also suitable for the generation of nuclear technology products, including fission isotopes used in medical diagnostic and treatment procedures.

The first medical radioisotopes, iodine-131 capsules, were produced in 1973, and an isotope processing facility was built at Pelindaba in 1977.

By the 1990s this facility was supplying more than 90% of all South African radiopharmaceuticals and had begun to export its products internationally. The same period, however, also saw a significant shift in the structure and operations of what would later become the NTP Group.

Following the lifting of economic sanctions and the signing of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in the early 1990s, South Africa’s nuclear programme was dramatically scaled down. A government review panel was appointed to assess the viability of South Africa’s nuclear projects, including the SAFARI-1 reactor and the adjacent isotope facility, which at that stage employed just 30 people and was running at an annual loss of around R10-million.

It was at this stage that a group of scientists and engineers working at SAFARI-1 presented a bold new commercialisation plan. The legacy infrastructure at Pelindaba, coupled with the country’s inventory of enriched uranium and the availability of highly skilled local expertise, meant the existing enterprise was ideally positioned to attempt the large-scale production and export of key medical radioisotope molybdenum-99, in addition to other economically important radiochemicals such as iodine-131. The commercialisation plan included the ingenious repurposing of hot-cell complexes that had previously been designed to test fuel assemblies used at the Koeberg nuclear power facility. In addition to isotope production, a new facility was constructed adjacent to the reactor pool at SAFARI-1, to be used for the neutron transmutation doping of silicon for the semi-conductor industry.

Within the first year, the team had exceeded all initial production and income targets, and in doing so had ensured a sustainable future for SAFARI-1, nuclear physics, and nuclear medicine in Africa. The commercialisation plan was so successful that, within a decade, NTP was able to cover 90% of the annual operating and maintenance costs of SAFARI-1, with the remainder of the costs carried by Necsa to fund the research activities conducted at SAFARI-1.

Today, NTP employs over 400 people and has an annual turnover exceeding R1,2-billion. This proudly South African company supplies nearly a third of the world’s Mo-99, and exports radiation products to 50 countries.