NNSA’s Molybdenum-99 Program: Establishing a Reliable Supply of Mo-99 Produced Without Highly Enriched Uranium

National Nuclear Security Administration

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Nonproliferation

NNSA works to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons-usable nuclear or radiological material.

As part of its mission to minimize the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU), NNSA’s Office of Material Management and Minimization was tasked to lead the Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) program. Mo-99 is an isotope that is used in over 40,000 medical procedures in the United States each day, but is 100% supplied by foreign vendors, most of which use HEU in the production process.

NNSA is working with commercial partners to accelerate the establishment of a reliable supply of Mo-99 in the United States, produced without HEU. The decay product of Mo-99, technetium-99m (Tc-99m), is used to diagnose heart disease and cancer, to study organ structure and function, and to perform other important medical applications. For example, patients undergoing a common procedure—the cardiac “stress test”—likely have benefited from Tc-99m.

Mo-99 is produced mainly in aging research reactors that have experienced an increased frequency of unplanned outages in recent years. Some of these outages have caused global Mo-99 supply shortages, in some cases forcing hospitals to delay critical patient treatment. NNSA has worked since 2009 to accelerate commercial production of Mo-99 in the United States by supporting a variety of innovative technologies that do not use HEU, a mission made all the more urgent with the shutdown of Canada’s National Research Universal reactor—historically the United States’ largest supplier—in late 2016.

NNSA aims to create a reliable commercial Mo-99 supply network that avoids a single point of failure that does not use HEU. This effort requires strong cooperation and coordination among government, industry, and the medical community. The ultimate goal of the Mo-99 program is to ensure that this important medical isotope is readily available to meet patient needs, and is produced in accordance with U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy by eliminating the use of proliferation-sensitive HEU.

To support the development of non-HEU-based Mo-99 production in the United States, NNSA is using cooperative agreements that provide up to $25 million in matching funds, based on a 50/50 cost-share between NNSA and the U.S. commercial partners. NNSA currently has cooperative agreements with three partners for four projects: Northstar Medical Radioisotopes, SHINE Medical Technologies, and General Atomics. A key pillar of the program is NNSA’s technology-neutral approach, which recognizes that a successful solution to prevent a shortage of Mo-99 is more likely to be found through the parallel development of several production technologies.

NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes is developing both neutron capture and accelerator-based technologies, which will utilize NorthStar’s proprietary RadioGenixTM Tc-99m Generating System.

SHINE Medical Technologies is developing accelerator technology to produce Mo-99 with accelerator-based low enriched uranium (LEU) fission.

General Atomics is working with the Missouri University Research Reactor and Nordion to produce fission-based Mo-99 from an LEU target using selective gas extraction (SGE) technology.

NNSA also makes technical expertise from the National Laboratories available, on a non-proprietary basis, to existing and potential Mo-99 producers who seek assistance in converting their Mo-99 production processes to use LEU targets or to develop non-HEU-based Mo-99 production technologies.

In addition, other organizations in the United States are also working to develop the ability to produce non-HEU-based Mo-99. While independent of NNSA’s Mo-99 Program, these projects are complementary to domestic and international efforts to ensure a reliable supply of Mo-99 produced without HEU. These groups include, but are not limited to: