Progress in production of isotopes from US legacy waste

14 April 2023

Some 75-100 times more doses of next generation alpha targeted therapy treatments will be available annually worldwide, compared with today, through a project to produce isotopes from legacy nuclear material at the US Department of Energy's (DOE's) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), the project partners say.

An Isotek employee processing U-233 inside a glovebox at ORNL (Image: DOE EM)

Since 2003, Isotek has been responsible for safely and securely overseeing the inventory of uranium-233 and preparing its removal from ORNL. Since then, employees have transferred and dispositioned about half of the inventory. The remaining inventory requires processing and downblending prior to disposal, which began in October 2019. 

Isotek Systems (a subsidiary of Atkins Nuclear Secured), TerraPower and the DOE entered a public-private partnership in 2018. Through this partnership, Isotek is extracting the rare medical isotope thorium-229 for TerraPower Isotopes, a subsidiary of TerraPower, to advance promising cancer treatment research.

In 2021, TerraPower signed a collaboration agreement with Cardinal Health NPHS to produce and distribute TerraPower's actinium-225 product, which is generated using the thorium-229 extracted in ORNL. Actinium-225 will be used in drug trials involving targeted therapy for diseases such as breast, prostate, colon and neuroendocrine cancers as well as melanoma and lymphoma.

Isotek reinvested funds it received from TerraPower into the project, helping accelerate the work and begin processing uranium-233 sooner. Isotek purchased gloveboxes that allowed workers to begin processing canisters with lower levels of radiation. That approach enabled the extraction and delivery of rare isotopes quicker. This processing campaign, known as the Thorium Express Project, ran from 2019-2021.

An event was held on 11 April to mark the next phase of this effort: providing significantly larger quantities of medical isotopes to aid research and simultaneously eliminating an inventory of 1950s era uranium-233 nuclear material stored at ORNL.

The project provides the capacity to produce 500,000 cancer treatment doses per year. Currently there are only 4000 doses of these lifesaving therapies, known as targeted alpha therapy, available worldwide.

"This partnership is a success for all involved," said Jay Mullis, manager of DOE's Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management. "Through Isotek's innovative approach, we are able to accelerate one of our highest priority projects, spend less taxpayer dollars to complete the project and provide material that will greatly benefit the public in the future."

"Being able to extract potentially lifesaving medical isotopes prior to dispositioning highly enriched material is precisely what we mean when we say we engineer a better future for our planet and its people," said Joe St Julian, President, Nuclear, SNC-Lavalin. "This has created an aspiring mission for everyone involved. We are honoured to be assisting the DOE with this historic achievement."

"Thanks to DOE's vision and TerraPower's investment to cover costs associated with the extraction of selected medical isotopes, the lives of many families will be changed for the better," added Atkins Nuclear Secured President Jim Rugg. "This partnership has created an inspiring mission for our workforce, and we are honoured to be assisting the Department of Energy with this historic achievement."

ORNL's uranium-233 inventory is a legacy of Cold War-era operations and its disposition is the DOE Office of Environmental Management's highest priority at the Tennessee site. It is stored in Building 3019, which has been described as the oldest operating nuclear facility in the world.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News