DOE nears decision on reactor switch for molybdenum program

July 13, 1994

DOE chief affirms support for effort The U.S. Department of Energy is close to finalizing a decisionto shift the focus of its molybdenum-99 program from the OmegaWest nuclear reactor to one at Sandia National Laboratory. TheDOE hopes to begin

DOE chief affirms support for effort

The U.S. Department of Energy is close to finalizing a decisionto shift the focus of its molybdenum-99 program from the OmegaWest nuclear reactor to one at Sandia National Laboratory. TheDOE hopes to begin work on the project before October 1995, withisotope production starting two years later.

Molybdenum-99 is the raw material for technetium-99m, the mostcommonly used radioisotope in nuclear medicine. Nearly all theU.S. supply of molybdenum comes from a single nuclear reactorin Canada (SCAN 11/17/93).

The DOE has been trying to break the monopoly by starting upits own source of Mo-99, under the aegis of the DOE's IsotopeProduction and Distribution Program (IP&DP). IP&DP initiallyfavored the Omega West reactor at Los Alamos National Laboratoryin New Mexico as the site for the program, but technical problemsthere have prompted the department to look elsewhere.

DOE has settled on the Annular Core Research Reactor at Sandia,in Albuquerque, where the DOE plans to convert the reactor andhot cells over to molybdenum-99 production (SCAN 4/20/94). Inorder to effect the switch, however, the DOE must reprogam budgetfunding for IP&DP. In order to commit funds to the Mo-99 program,the DOE must reallocate money from elsewhere in its budget, accordingto Owen Lowe, head of the isotope program.

While the nuclear medicine community has been frustrated withthe delay in getting a U.S. molybdenum facility on-line, the changein attitude at the DOE is seen as a positive step. During theBush administration, the DOE was often criticized for moving tooslowly on isotope production (SCAN 8/26/92).

In a pronounced change of heart for the agency, secretary ofenergy Hazel O'Leary emphasized the DOE's support for isotopeproduction at a news conference held at the Society of NuclearMedicine meeting in Orlando last month.

"We are clear on the fact that here in the United Stateswe need some kind of isotope production," O'Leary said. "Itake that as a personal mission."

The DOE has also taken steps to eliminate a requirement thatIP&DP recover all its costs through sales of isotopes. Therequirement, Public Law 101-101, has hamstrung the agency's abilityto react to the rising demand for medical isotopes. In addition,the mandate has been impossible to meet because of changes inthe isotope market since the end of the Cold War, according toLowe.

Legislation that would remove the cost recovery mandate isbeing prepared and is expected to be considered during the adoptionof a new federal budget, Lowe said.