Federal legislation proposes $163 million for domestic Mo-99 production

July 28, 2009
James Brice

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA), frustrated with isotope supply disruptions, has introduced bipartisan legislation that would reestablish molybdenum-99 production capabilities in the U.S. and phase out the export of highly enriched uranium for medical isotope manufacture. Markey is chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA), frustrated with isotope supply disruptions, has introduced bipartisan legislation that would reestablish molybdenum-99 production capabilities in the U.S. and phase out the export of highly enriched uranium for medical isotope manufacture. Markey is chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment.

The bill, cosponsored by Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), the subcommittee's ranking minority member, would authorize $163 million over five years to enable the Department of Energy to support private sector efforts to bring domestic production of Mo-99 online. The U.S. has relied on foreign sources for Mo-99 since the last U.S. commercial supplier closed in 1989.

Mo-99 is the precursor to technetium-99m, a short-lived medical isotope used in about 16 million nuclear imaging procedures annually in the U.S. Mo-99 cannot be stockpiled because of its 66-hour half-life.

U.S. nuclear imaging providers rely on the 51-year-old National Research Universal reactor at Chalk River, ON, for about 60% of their Mo-99 needs. At least another 20% originates from another half-century-old reactor at Petten in the Netherlands. A 20-MW reactor in South Africa is another important source.

In the past two years, the Canadian and Dutch reactors have both experienced extended shutdowns that triggered widespread medical isotope shortages and imaging service disruptions. The Chalk River reactor has been shut down since May 16 because of a heavy water leak. Isotope production at the facility, operated by Atomic Energy Canada Limited, is not expected to resume until repairs are completed late this year. The Petten facility was shut down for five months ending in February 2009 because of safety-related repairs.

"We cannot afford to have American patients held hostage to old and faulty nuclear reactors in other countries," Markey said in a release.

Until recently, efforts to reestablish a domestic source in the U.S. were thwarted by the promise of an inexpensive and reliable supply of isotopes from AECL's twin MAPLE reactors at Chalk River, said Dr. Michael Graham, president of SNM, the professional society representing nuclear medicine.

Design problems plagued the $500 million facilities after their completion in 2000. The Canadian government announced in May 2008 that the facilities would be permanently shuttered. Canada Prime Minister Steven Harper told reporters in June that his government plans to get out of the medical isotope business.

A federal cash infusion would help cut years from the timetable to build new facilities in the U.S., according to Graham.

"Congress is beginning to understand our dilemma and is looking for funding opportunities to make this happen. This would be a first and major step," he said in an interview.

Operators of the University of Missouri Research Reactor (MURR), near the university's Columbia campus, announced plans in 2008 to modify their facility to produce enough Mo-99 to meet about half of U.S. demand for the isotope. Backed by Department of Energy and National Nuclear Security Administration grants, MURR has worked with scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory to develop low-enriched uranium (LEU) target vessels for Mo-99 production.

Nuclear reactor designer Babcock & Wilcox Technical Services is also working with medical isotope provider Covidien to develop a Mo-99 production facility based on a compact B&W reactor design. It would use LEU targets.

The legislation would also close a loophole in U.S. nuclear nonproliferation law that has allowed the export of atomic bomb-grade highly enriched uranium for medical isotope production. All major isotope production facilities, including the NRU reactor at Chalk River and the High Flux Reactor at Petten, use highly enriched (bomb grade) uranium. The bill would halt exports in seven to 10 years.

A 2008 National Academies of Sciences report established the feasibility of converting to LEU at each major production site. The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization started producing commercial volumes of Mo-99 this year using LEU targets at its Open Pool Australian Lightwater Reactor near Sydney.

The bill's early supporters include the SNM, ACR, American College of Cardiology, American Society of Nuclear Cardiology, Union of Concerned Scientists, and eight other organizations.