New isotope facility to ease pressure on supplies

04 August 2017

Radioisotope producers around the world are working to meet the capacity lost with the end of production by Canada's National Research Universal (NRU) reactor in 2016. Construction of a new production facility in the USA will help to meet the growing global demand for medical radioisotopes.

Shine Building One groundbreaking - 460 (David Tenebaum_Uni of Wisconsin-Madison)
The ceremony to mark start of construction of Shine's new isotope facility
(Image: David Tenebaum/University of Wisconsin-Madison)

The NRU reactor - one of the largest and most versatile research reactors in the world - ceased production in October 2016, though the capacity will remain on standby until the reactor closes in March 2018. NRU produced about 40% of world supply of molybdenum-99 (Mo-99). Research reactors in Australia, Europe, Russia and South Africa have since met demand.

Mo-99 is the precursor of technetium-99m (Tc-99m), the most widely used isotope in nuclear medicine. With a half-life of only 66 hours, Mo-99 cannot be stockpiled, and security of supply is a key concern. Most Mo-99 is currently produced from highly-enriched uranium (HEU) targets, which are themselves seen as a potential nuclear proliferation risk.

There has been no commercial production of the isotope in the USA since 1989. Since 2009 the US Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has been working in partnership with US commercial entities to accelerate the development of technologies to produce the radioisotope domestically without using HEU.

Shine Medical Technologies yesterday broke ground for its new radioisotope production facility in Janesville, Wisconsin. The facility will produce medically important isotopes, including Mo-99, using an accelerator-driven subcritical assembly - not a nuclear reactor - to irradiate a low-enriched uranium (LEU) target solution. Shine's project has received $25 million under the NNSA's program.

Shine submitted its application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 2013. In October 2015, following an independent review of Shine's preliminary safety analysis report, the NRC's advisory committee on reactor safeguards recommended that a construction permit should be issued. In February 2016, the NRC authorized its staff to issue a construction permit for the facility.

During a ceremony held yesterday, ground was broken for "Building One" of Shine's new facility. The building will consist mainly of laboratory space, where the techniques for making Mo-99 can be refined. The facility is being constructed close to Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport to speed shipment of radioisotopes produced. The first commercial shipment of Mo-99 is expected in early 2020.

NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes and General Atomics are also participating in the NNSA program. NorthStar is developing a method to produce the isotope using a linear accelerator, while General Atomics is developing an LEU target fission technology.

South African supply

NTP Radioisotopes - a subsidiary of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) - says it currently supplies between one-quarter and one-third of global demand for Mo-99.

NTP finance director Precious Hawadi said, "We have managed to grow our market share for Mo-99 through continued investment in our production, and by working with our partners to cover the supply gap."

The global nuclear medicine market - including radioisotopes and equipment - was worth over $11 billion in 2016, according to NTP. It is projected to reach almost $20 billion by 2021.

Future outlook

In a report published in April on the supply of medical radioisotopes, the OECD-Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) noted that additional reactor capacity and associated processing capacity from existing radioisotope producers were added during 2016.

"Overall, the current irradiator and processor supply chain capacity should be sufficient and if well maintained, planned and scheduled, be able to manage an unplanned outage of a reactor, or a processor throughout the whole period to 2022," the NEA said. "When no additional capacity is added, then from mid-2018, the level of capability to manage adverse events reduces, in particular when considering processing capacity."

The supply situation will continue to require "careful and well considered planning", to minimise security of supply risks, with a high degree of cooperation between producers "being essential for the foreseeable future". The NEA said regular monitoring of the market will be required, together with periodic reviews of the progress in bringing new production capacity online.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News