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.”