Researchers at a nuclear plant in southeastern China have started mass production of carbon-14, becoming the first in the world to generate the radioactive isotope from a commercial reactor, according to state media. Mass output started at the Qinshan Nuclear Power Plant in Zhejiang province on Thursday, state broadcaster CCTV reported. “It is the first time in the country or even in the world that carbon-14 has been produced from a commercial nuclear reactor,” Qinshan chairman Huang Qian said in the report. “We have discovered a new pathway in the manufacture of medical isotopes from commercial nuclear reactors.” China aims to expand use of nuclear power amid threat of energy crisis Carbon-14 can be used in medicine and agriculture and China used to import all of its supplies, particularly from Canada. But in 2009 when a leak was detected at the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor at Chalk River in Ontario, the reactor was shut down for a year, resulting in a worldwide shortage of medical isotopes. The NRU was a research reactor and was once responsible for producing half of the world’s supply of the medical isotopes used for diagnosis and cancer therapy, including carbon-14. The shortage resulted in rising prices, limiting carbon-14’s use in China, researchers from the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) wrote in a paper in 2019. So China embarked on a programme to make it locally. The Qinshan plant is the first and largest of its kind in China, with two heavy-water reactors and five pressurised water reactors. The carbon-14 production will be produced by one of the heavy-water reactors. Senior Qinshan engineer Fan Shen, told CCTV that a heavy-water reactor had five or six times more neutrons than a pressurised water reactor, so the output would be five or six times higher. The Qinshan plant expects to start supplying carbon-14 isotopes to the market in 2024 and has the capacity to meet domestic demand, according to CNNC, which owns the facility. “It marks a breakthrough by CNNC in the manufacturing of isotopes for medical purposes,” CNNC said in a statement on Tuesday. John Marra, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at Brooklyn College, New York, said carbon-14 was used to uncover metabolic pathways and in research into photosynthetic rates in the ocean and on land. “It is used, or has been used, in drug discovery, where a particular drug is labelled with carbon-14 at specific sites on the molecule, and when given to patients in small doses, can be followed through the drug’s absorption, its distribution in the body, its metabolism, and its excretion,” said Marra, who is also the author of the book Hot Carbon: Carbon-14 and a Revolution in Science. “That carbon-14 can be produced independently in China is certainly an advantage to engage in this research, since it will not have to go through the importation of a radioactive substance and all that that involves. “Of course, China will have to institute its own regulations for its use to ensure safety.” David Fishman, a senior manager at power sector consultancy The Lautau Group, said carbon-14 was a useful by-product of some kinds of fission-based nuclear reactors. “If it’s economically or commercially attractive to extract it, rather than import it, then it makes sense from a supply chain security perspective,” Fishman said.