DOE proposes reactor switch in Mo-99 production effort

April 20, 1994

Nuclear lab closing Omega West reactorThe Department of Energy is reconsidering its plan to restartthe Omega West reactor at Los Alamos National Laboratory in NewMexico in order to produce molybdenum-99, the raw material fortechnetium-99m. The

Nuclear lab closing Omega West reactor

The Department of Energy is reconsidering its plan to restartthe Omega West reactor at Los Alamos National Laboratory in NewMexico in order to produce molybdenum-99, the raw material fortechnetium-99m. The DOE is proposing instead to use a differentreactor for the Mo-99 effort, a program that is already late incoming.

Nuclear medicine advocates have been lobbying the DOE for yearsto create a U.S. supply for Mo-99, most of which currently comesfrom a reactor operated by the Canadian government. After congressionalprodding, DOE officials testified before Congress last year thatthey intended to restart the Omega West reactor to produce Mo-99(SCAN 12/29/93).

According to an article published April 3 in the Los AlamosMonitor, however, officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory(LANL) have begun preparations to decommission the Omega Westreactor.

The DOE's plan to restart Omega West has been in limbo dueto a leaking coolant pipe underneath the reactor building. TheDOE has been reluctant to commit the large sums of money necessaryto repair the leak, and LANL has been spending $225,000 a monthin defense research funding to keep the reactor on standby, accordingto the Monitor article.

The paper quoted a memo from LANL officials to Owen Lowe, headof the DOE's Isotope Production and Distribution Program, statingthat LANL has grown tired of supporting Omega West while waitingfor the DOE to make a decision on the reactor's future. The memostated that if LANL officials did not receive instructions tostart Omega West by March 31, they would begin decommissioningthe reactor.

LANL followed through on its warning and began decommissioningOmega West this month. Omega West is no longer the centerpieceof the DOE's Mo-99 effort, however, Lowe told SCAN.

The DOE is now proposing to use the Annular Core Research Reactorat Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque for Mo-99 productioninstead of Omega West. The Sandia reactor is less expensive tomodify and operate for Mo-99 production than Omega West, Lowesaid.

The decision to go forward with the Sandia reactor must bemade by DOE deputy secretary Bill White, who will receive therequired paperwork asking for a decision on the switch shortly,Lowe said. The Sandia reactor should begin producing Mo-99 abouttwo years after White's approval is given.

Despite the change, the DOE's commitment to producing Mo-99is not in question, according to Lowe.

Many nuclear medicine specialists would like to see the agencymove more quickly on the issue, however. At one time, the DOEwas predicting that Mo-99 production would start in early 1993(SCAN 11/17/93).

The delay is in large measure due to the fact that the DOE'sisotope production program is understaffed and lacks the resourcesto accomplish its mission in a timely fashion, according to acongressional aide.

"These are complicated technical issues that demand complicatedanalyses. It's better that they do it right than make the wrongdecision," the aide said. "But it's symptomatic of theproblems that have plagued this program, which are that they don'thave adequate resources in terms of manpower to analyze thesetechnical decisions and keep this thing on the fast track."