In WI, NNSA Kickstarts Domestic Isotope Manufacturing with $10M Grant

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Since the summer of 2010, when travel disruptions from an ash-spewing Icelandic volcano exposed the fragility of the domestic isotope supply, researchers and policymakers alike have been working on a plan to stabilize global production of technetium-99m.

In Canada, scientists at the national research laboratory, TRIUMF, proposed constructing a number of smaller particle accelerators throughout the country by retrofitting hospital cyclotrons, which are used in PET/CT imaging.

But the Canadian nuclear industry is facing potential labor strikes owing to the recent privatization of the Candu reactor, which generates 16 percent of the energy in the country.

Furthermore, the shutdown of the Chalk River, Ontario reactor in 2009, which preceded (and intensified) the 2010 global isotope shortage, only underscored for American lawmakers the need for domestic sources of moly-99.

This week, a major first step in achieving that goal was announced, as the Morgridge Institute for Research and the U.S. Department of Energy finalized a multimillion-dollar agreement to open a medical isotope plant in Janesville, WI.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is kicking in $10-plus million toward the cost of the project; the balance will be distributed among the Morgridge Institute, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and medical tracer manufacturer Shine Medical Technologies.

That $85 million plant is expected to be online by 2015; meanwhile, in nearby Beloit, WI, NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes LLC, is expected to procced with construction of its own federally funded plant. As the Chicago Tribune notes, the region, which was once known for its (now-shuttered) GM factory, could soon find its manufacturing fortunes rebounding.

Although the article points out that “Shine's process does not use highly enriched uranium and does not require a nuclear reactor -- two goals of the Energy Department,” the journal Nature cautions that isotope-separating technologies “could make it easier both to perform and to conceal illicit work” on nuclear weapons-grade uranium.

But hey—anything that puts people back to work, right?