Important Medical Isotope Produced with Low Enriched Uranium

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Publication date: 
10 December 2010
Number: 
122

On  Monday, the first shipment of molybdenum-99 produced with low enriched uranium  arrived in the United States.  This was  the successful culmination of many years of research by the state-owned Nuclear  Energy Corporation of South Africa (Necsa) to develop a commercial-scale process  using low enriched uranium targets to produce this important medical isotope.  The National Nuclear Security Administration  provided support for this initiative.

There has been a critical shortage of  Mo-99 since the unexpected shutdown of a Canadian nuclear reactor in May 2009.  More than 16 million nuclear medical  procedures are performed in the United States every year using this isotope made  at a handful of foreign reactors.  No  U.S. facility produces Mo-99. 

The inherent risk of using highly  enriched uranium in the production of Mo-99 has been a long standing concern of  policymakers.  The Energy Policy Act of  2005 called for a National Academies’ study on the feasibility of eliminating  highly enriched uranium in the production of medical isotopes.  The National Research Council determined that  Mo-99 could be technically and economically produced without the use of highly  enriched uranium.  The House overwhelmingly  passed H.R. 3276 in November 2009 to authorize $163 million for a new Department  of Energy program to support industry and universities in the domestic  production of Mo-99 using low enriched uranium.  The American Association of Physicists  in Medicine, a Member Society of the American Institute of Physics, supports  this legislation.  The bill was reported out of a Senate committee early this year to the full  Senate, which has not acted.

A January 2010 document by the National  Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) outlined a program within its Global  Threat Reduction Initiative “to develop [within the U.S.] a reliable Mo-99  commercial supply network that avoids a single point-of-failure and does not  use HEU [highly enriched uranium.]” NNSA signed cooperative agreements with GE  Hitachi, and Babcock and Wilcox.

There was also movement  internationally.  In April, 47  participating countries at the Washington Global Nuclear Security Summit agreed  on a Work Plan, in support of the summit’s Communiqué.  The plan stated:

“Participating States, as appropriate,  will collaborate to research and develop new technologies that require neither  highly enriched uranium fuels for reactor operation nor highly enriched uranium  targets for producing medical or other isotopes, and will encourage the use of  low enriched uranium and other proliferation-resistant technologies and fuels  in various commercial applications such as isotope production”

In late October, NNSA awarded a $25  million contract to support the production of Mo-99 with low enriched uranium to  Necsa and its subsidiary working in collaboration with ANSTO, the Australian  Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation.   This agreement resulted in the first shipment of this isotope on  December 6 from Necsa’s subsidiary, NTP Radioisotopes, to Lantheus Medical  Imaging.  In a statement released that  day, Lantheus explained that its “current supply of Mo-99 is sufficient to meet  current and near-term needs,” adding that it “continues to pursue various  initiatives to ensure a global diversified and reliable source of Mo-99,  including identifying potential new producers as well as new technologies such  as LEU-produced Mo-99.”

In commenting on this development, NNSA  Administrator Thomas D’Agostino said:

“South Africa’s success in producing  large-scale quantities of Mo-99 using LEU marks a significant milestone toward  ending the use of highly enriched uranium in medical isotope production around  the world.  It reduces a major hurdle to  global threat reduction efforts by demonstrating that we can work together to  meet the global demand for critical medical isotopes in a way that also  promotes the global nuclear nonproliferation agenda.  This cooperation between Necsa and NNSA shows  our shared commitment to implementing the international commitments made at the  April 2010 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington D.C.”