DOE action fires up NBTF project

April 21, 1993

Nuclear medicine advocates are claiming victory after the U.S.Department of Energy last month requested $2 million to studythe creation of a National Biomedical Tracer Facility to produceradioisotopes. Such a study would be a major step toward securinga

Nuclear medicine advocates are claiming victory after the U.S.Department of Energy last month requested $2 million to studythe creation of a National Biomedical Tracer Facility to produceradioisotopes. Such a study would be a major step toward securinga reliable domestic source for radioisotopes.

An ongoing shortage of domestically produced radioisotopeshas hurt the competitiveness of U.S. nuclear medicine research,according to the American College of Nuclear Physicians and theSociety of Nuclear Medicine. The shortage could also have nationalsecurity implications if the foreign source of a radioisotopewere cut off, as nearly happened last year with molybdenum-99,the raw material for technetium-99m. Nearly all molybdenum-99used in the U.S. is produced from a single Canadian reactor, whichwas the site of a labor dispute last summer (SCAN 8/12/92).

Establishing the NBTF would create a regular source for radioisotopesproduced by linear accelerators and would put the U.S. on a levelplaying field with other countries that have government-sponsoredradioisotope facilities.

There are no commercial suppliers of radioisotopes in the U.S.Two government facilities produce radioisotopes, but one, LosAlamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, is scheduled to ceasedeliveries next year to the Isotope Production and DistributionProgram, which supplies isotopes used in nuclear medicine. Theother government facility, Brookhaven National Laboratory in NewYork, does not produce the full range of radioisotopes used inthe U.S.

Despite the apparent need for the NBTF, nuclear medicine specialistshave had trouble getting the DOE to commit itself to the facility.The DOE's request came only after Congress passed legislationlast year ordering the agency to conduct an NBTF feasibility study(SCAN 10/21/92).

But the request is a sign that the DOE is finally on boardthe project, according to Kristen Morris, director of governmentrelations for the ACNP/SNM.

"The DOE realizes that it has an obligation to make isotopesavailable domestically," Morris said. "It's not a matterof whether it's going to be done, but how it's going to be done."

Representatives from the ACNP/SNM testified on the need forthe NBTF at a hearing April 1 before the House of Representativesenergy and water development subcommittee of the Committee onAppropriations.

The $2 million appropriation is part of the agency's proposedbudget, which must wind its way through House and Senate appropriationscommittees. If the request is ultimately approved, the money willbe used to begin a project definition phase for the NBTF. Oneof the first steps would be a request for proposal to solicitcompetitive bids from companies interested in designing and constructingthe facility. The DOE will also take proposals from academic institutionsinterested in siting the project.

If all goes well, the RFP will be issued later this year, withsite selection occurring in 1994 and funding for constructionthe year after that.

In the interim, an accelerator at Brookhaven National Laboratorycould be upgraded to make up for the loss of Los Alamos, accordingto Morris. An appropriation for such an upgrade was included inPresident Clinton's budget proposal, she said, but even afteran upgrade Brookhaven would only be able to meet between 65% to85% of demand.

Progress on another DOE radioisotope project is not going aswell as NBTF. The agency is attempting to activate the Omega Westreactor at Los Alamos to produce molybdenum-99. DOE had intendedto begin production early this year, but a reactor leak has delayedthose plans, according to a DOE official.

Repairing the leak could add millions of dollars to a projectthat has already cost $8 million. It is doubtful whether a budget-cuttingCongress will approve more funding for a project that is beginningto look like a money pit.

"I think (the molybdenum project's) outlook is very questionable,"Morris said. "It's really set us back to square one."