“The development of commercial technologies to produce Mo-99 without the use of HEU [Highly Enriched Uranium] will ensure that patients have access to the care they need while advancing global nuclear nonproliferation objectives,” explained Anne Harrington, National Nuclear Security Administration Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation. Harrington was commenting on a September 30 award of a cooperative agreement to General Atomics for the production of molybdenum-99 (Mo-99).
The development of a domestic source for the production of Mo-99 without the use of HEU has long been a goal of the federal government and medical community. Mo-99 is the parent isotope of technetium-99m employed in approximately 50,000 medical procedures in the United States every day. Mo-99 is currently provided by foreign suppliers using aging reactors, primarily with HEU. The largest supplier of Mo-99 is in Canada, and is scheduled to cease regular production of this isotope after 2016.
Ten years ago the Energy Policy Act recognized the grave problems posed by the potential illicit diversion of HEU and required the Department of Energy to commission a National Academies study on the feasibility of eliminating HEU in the production of medical isotopes. A committee determined this production could be accomplished technically and economically. A bipartisan bill, the American Medical Isotopes Production Act was overwhelmingly passed by the House of Representatives in November 2009. The House and Senate acted separately in succeeding years, finally agreeing to incorporate major provisions of the legislation into the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act that was moving through Congress. A conference report accompanying this bill stated “the Secretary of Energy [is] to establish a technology-neutral, cost-shared program to evaluate and support projects for the domestic production of MO–99 for medical uses without the use of highly enriched uranium.”
NNSA is now working with two other commercial partners in producing Mo-99, NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes and SHINE Medical Technologies. The University of Missouri Research Reactor and Nordion are collaborating with General Atomics on the new $9.7 million award that will use selective gas extraction technology. General Atomics will match NNSA funds on a dollar-to-dollar basis. The total amount of the NNSA contribution is capped at $25 million. Commented Harrington, “This cooperative agreement exemplifies NNSA’s ongoing commitment to accelerate the establishment of domestic production of this important medical isotope, and demonstrates that the Government and commercial industry can work together to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation while providing stability to an important part of the medical radioisotope market.”