Boosting molybdenum in USA and Australia

13 May 2014

A US company is planning to construct a new facility to produce molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) from university research reactors. At the same time, work is beginning on a new Australian facility to produce the same vital medical isotope.

Oregon-based Northwest Medical Isotopes (NWMI) has unveiled its plans to build a new radioisotope production facility at the University of Missouri's Discovery Ridge research and industrial park. The company plans to invest $50 million in the facility, which it says will be able to meet 50% of North American demand for Mo-99.

Mo-99 is used in hospitals to produce the technetium-99 used in an estimated 45 million diagnostic procedures per year around the world. Produced in research reactors, the radioisotope has a half-life of only 66 hours and cannot be stockpiled. Most of the world's Mo-99 comes from just five reactors in Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, South Africa and Russia. Security of supply is a key concern, and recent years have seen global shortages of the isotope when major production reactors have been out of action. This has led to various initiatives around the world to investigate alternative sources of supply.

Although university-class research reactors are capable of producing the radioisotope, they had not been thought of as capable of doing so in commercial quantities. However, Oregon State University (OSU) has been working on new low-enriched uranium (LEU) targets for use in Triga research reactors that it says could enable them to do so. NWMI has licensed this technology from OSU, which is one of the company's founding members.

NWMI has already notified the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission of its intention to submit an application for a construction licence for the facility, which would produce fabricate the targets, ship them to a network of university research reactors where they would be irradiated, and process the returned irradiated targets to recover the Mo-99. The facility is expected to begin operations in 2016.

Work begins at Lucas Heights

Meanwhile, dignitaries including Australia's ministry for industry marked the start of work on a new AUD168 million ($157 million) nuclear medicine facility to enable Australia to triple its production of Mo-99.

Industry minister Ian Macfarlane and Ansto CEO Adi Paterson are shown the early work at the Lucas Heights site (Image: Ansto)

The new facility at Lucas Heights will enable the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (Ansto) to significantly increase the output from its OPAL reactor, which came into operation in 2006. OPAL currently produces some 550,000 doses of Mo-99 per year, enough to meet Australia's own requirements. The new plant will enable it to make 20 million doses per year, enabling Australia to become a major international supplier of the isotope.

The facility is being constructed by Watpac Ltd and is due to start operations in 2016.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News