NNSA announces funding for isotope projects

14 November 2014

The US Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is to award over $8 million of funding to push forward two projects aimed at securing a domestic supply of the molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) without using highly enriched uranium (HEU).

According to NNSA, NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes is to receive $5.2 million to further develop its technology to produce Mo-99 via neutron capture, bringing the total NNSA support for the project to $16.1 million to date. Meanwhile, Shine Medical Technologies will receive $3.2 million to develop its accelerator-based technology to produce Mo-99 via fission of low-enriched uranium (LEU). The NNSA has to date provided that project with $13.9 million. Both companies are based in Wisconsin.

Mo-99 is used in hospitals to produce the technetium-99m employed in around 80% of nuclear imaging procedures. Produced in research reactors, Mo-99 has a half-life of only 66 hours and cannot be stockpiled, and security of supply is a key concern. Most of the world's supply comes from just five reactors in Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, South Africa and Russia, and recent years have illustrated how unexpected shutdowns at any of those reactors can quickly lead to shortages. Furthermore, most Mo-99 is currently produced from HEU targets, which are themselves seen as a potential nuclear proliferation risk.

The USA currently does not produce Mo-99 and imports all of its requirements. Since 2009, NNSA has been working with commercial partners to accelerate the establishment of a domestic Mo-99 supply network using a diverse range of supply options that do not use HEU.

NNSA deputy administrator Anne Harrington said the latest funding highlighted the administration's commitment to the project. "This additional cost-shared support from NNSA to its cooperative agreement partners is especially vital as the world’s largest producer is expected to cease Mo-99 production in 2016," she said. Canada's NRU reactor, which currently produces some 30-40% of world requirements of Mo-99, is due to cease production in 2016 after nearly 60 years of operation.

NorthStar is developing two processes to produce Mo-99 without using HEU. In the short term, it is working to use the Missouri University Research Reactor (MURR) to irradiate Mo-98 targets to produce Mo-99, while in the longer term it is developing a method to produce the isotope using a linear accelerator.

As the NNSA cooperative agreements for domestic partners are awarded on a 50%/50% cost-sharing basis, up to a total of $25 million, NorthStar's cooperative agreement now has a total value of over $32.2 million. The company has already applied to the US Food and Drug Administration for approval of the neutron capture process so it can begin commercial production of Mo-99 at MURR, and NorthStar president and CEO George Messina said the NNSA funding represented a major milestone for the project. "The department's financial assistance through the cooperative agreement program and technical support via the national laboratories are invaluable resources that I believe will help us transform our ideas into commercial reality in 2015," he said. 

Shine plans to produce Mo-99 from LEU, but using sub-critical accelerator technology rather than a nuclear reactor. In October, the company secured a $125 million debt financing package from healthcare investment firm Deerfield Management which, together with federal funding from the NNSA, it plans to use to complete the design and construction of a manufacturing plant and cover ramp-up costs prior to commercial production.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News