The US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA) said on 20 February that it had completed its evaluation of applications submitted in response to a funding opportunity for the production of molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) without the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU).
Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said: “This industry outreach helps to develop a reliable domestic supply of a vital medical isotope, reduce dependence on foreign imports, and bring new opportunity to the heartland.”
Based upon the evaluations and recommendations of an independent technical review panel, DOE/NNSA selected the following four US companies to begin negotiations for potential new cooperative agreement awards: NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes (Wisconsin), Shine Medical Technologies (Wisconsin), Northwest Medical Isotopes (NWMI - Oregon ), and Niowave (Michigan).
With support from Congress, DOE/NNSA is appropriated to fund cooperative agreements up to $15 million for each company. Industry partners will match any awarded funding amount.
NorthStar is developing two processes to produce Mo-99 without using HEU. It is currently working to use the Missouri University Research Reactor (MURR) to irradiate Mo-98 targets to produce Mo-99, but plans to develop a method to produce the isotope using a linear accelerator. Shine is constructing a facility in Janesville, Wisconsin, which will produce medically important isotopes, including Mo-99, using low-energy, accelerator-based neutron source to fission an LEU target dissolved in an aqueous solution. Commercial production of Mo-99 at the facility is scheduled to begin in 2021. NWMI has licensed technology from Oregon State University for new low-enriched uranium (LEU) targets to be used in Triga research reactors. It has notified the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission that it plans to submit an application for a construction licence for a facility to produce the targets, ship them to a network of university research reactors for irradiation, and then process them to recover the Mo-99. Niowave is developing superconducting electron linear accelerators for medical radioisotope production.
DOE/NNSA is supporting the establishment of a redundant, reliable supply of Mo-99 produced in the USA without the use of HEU, and is supporting companies to achieve the objective of supplying approximately 3,000 six-day curies of Mo-99 per week. In addition to these cooperative agreements, DOE/NNSA also funds National Laboratories to advance industry efforts to produce Mo-99 domestically without HEU. In 2019, NNSA is funding national lab work in support of NorthStar, Shine, NWMI and Niowave, as well as: BWXT Isotope Technology Group, COQUI Radio Pharmaceuticals, Global Medical Isotope Systems, and Magneto Inertial Fusion Technologies Inc.
The American Medical Isotopes Production Act (AMIPA) of 2012 directed DOE/NNSA to implement a technology-neutral programme, in cooperation with non-Federal entities. A technology-neutral programme is open to all methods of producing Mo-99 without using HEU. DOE said it first used cooperative agreements in 2010 to support Mo-99 production in the USA, when three companies were selected to sign the agreements: Northstar Medical Radioisotopes, SHINE Medical Technologies, and General Atomics.
According to DOE data, all Mo-99 in the US is currently supplied by foreign vendors, most of which still use HEU in their production processes. Mo-99, mainly produced in research reactors from HEU targets, has a half-life of only 66 hours and cannot be stockpiled, making security of supply a key concern. Most of the world's supply currently comes from just four reactors in Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia and South Africa. Unexpected shutdowns in recent years have shown that just one reactor out of service can lead to shortages.