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The National Nuclear Security Administration’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative announced today the signing of a cooperative agreement with NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes, LLC, to further the development of accelerator-based technology to produce molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) in the United States.
The cooperative agreement between NNSA and NorthStar, which totals $4.6 million and is funded under a 50 percent/50 percent cost-share arrangement, will accelerate the development of the NorthStar technology to produce Mo-99 without proliferation-sensitive highly enriched uranium (HEU). The agreement would also support the goal of ensuring a reliable domestic supply of this critical medical isotope for U.S. patients.
The United States currently does not have a domestic production capability for Mo-99 and must import 100 percent of its supply from foreign producers, most of which use HEU in their production processes. Over the past few years, technical difficulties and shutdowns at the major Mo-99 production facilities have caused severe supply shortages, which have greatly impacted the availability of Mo-99 to the medical community. The Mo-99 produced by NorthStar would provide additional reliability for the U.S. supply.
As part of its nuclear nonproliferation mission, NNSA works to accelerate the establishment of a diverse, reliable supply of the critical medical isotope Mo-99, produced without the use of HEU, and this agreement is a step forward in those efforts. “NNSA is committed to supporting a diverse set of technologies for the establishment of a reliable supply of molybdenum-99 produced here in the United States without the use of highly enriched uranium,” said Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Anne Harrington.
“We are committed to supporting the technical advancement of commercial partners to meet the needs of the U.S. medical community while simultaneously advancing nonproliferation objectives and the minimization of civilian use of HEU worldwide.”
NNSA has partnered with four domestic commercial entities to accelerate the establishment of a diverse, reliable supply of Mo-99 within the United States that is not produced with HEU. NNSA also works with international producers to assist in the conversion of their Mo-99 production facilities from the use of HEU targets to LEU targets. These efforts are part of NNSA’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative’s mission to minimize and, to the extent possible, eliminate the use of HEU in civilian applications worldwide, including in research reactors and medical isotope production facilities.
Back in the early 1990s, the Department of Energy planned to produce Mo-99 at the Omega West Reactor and Chemistry and Metallurgy Research facilities at Los Alamos. However, in December 1992 to January 1993, the reactor was determined to be contributing to the tritium contamination of the groundwater beneath the facility. In 1994, the Omega West Reactor was decommissioned.
According to the Washington State Department of Health Office of Radiation Protection, Molybdenum is a silvery-white, hard, transition metal. It was often confused with graphite and lead ore. Molybdenum is used in alloys, electrodes and catalysts. The World War 2 German artillery piece called “Big Bertha” contains molybdenum as an essential component of its steel.
So what is Mo-99 used for?
The most widely used isotope in nuclear medicine is technetium-99m. Molybdenum-99 is used as the ‘parent’ in a generator to produce technetium-99m.
And where does it come from?
Mo-99 is artificially produced by irradiating U-235 foil with neutrons and then separating the molybdenum from the other fission products in a hot cell.