NNSA’s Office of Material Management and Minimization (M3) manages the Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) Program as part of its mission to minimize the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in civilian applications. HEU is a proliferation-sensitive material that, if diverted or stolen, could be used as a component of a nuclear weapon. The Mo-99 Program assists global Mo-99 production facilities in converting to non-HEU processes and supports the establishment of domestic supplies of Mo-99 without the use of proliferation-sensitive HEU.
The U.S. medical community depends on a reliable supply of the radioisotope Mo-99 for nuclear medical diagnostic procedures. Mo-99's decay product, technetium-99m (Tc-99m), used in over 40,000 medical procedures in the United States each day 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.
The majority of Mo-99 supplied to U.S. patients is currently provided by foreign producers located in Australia (ANSTO), Belgium (IRE), the Netherlands (Curium), and South Africa (NTP Radioisotopes). Historically, Mo-99 from these companies was mostly produced using HEU. With NNSA’s financial and technical assistance, three of the four major Mo-99 producers – Curium, IRE, and NTP – have converted or are in the final stages of converting to use low enriched uranium (LEU) to produce Mo-99. ANSTO, the fourth major producer, has always produced Mo-99 with LEU targets.
In 2012, Congress passed the American Medical Isotopes Production Act (AMIPA), which directed NNSA to establish a technology-neutral program to support the establishment of domestic supplies of Mo-99 without the use of HEU. NNSA has implemented this by competitively awarding 50%/50% cost-shared cooperative agreements to commercial entities and providing funds to the Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Laboratories to support development of non-HEU Mo-99 production technologies. NNSA’s collaboration with U.S. industry has achieved historic results. In November 2018, NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes began the first domestic production in nearly 30 years, utilizing a neutron capture technology with molybdenum-98 targets.
NNSA currently manages five cooperative agreements with four U.S. companies, all developing diverse Mo-99 production technologies:
- NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes, LLC (Beloit, Wisconsin)
- Neutron capture technology using molybdenum-98 targets
- Accelerator-based technology using molybdenum-100 targets
- SHINE Medical Technologies, LLC (Janesville, Wisconsin)
- Accelerator with fission technology to produce Mo-99 with an LEU solution target
- Niowave, Inc. (Lansing, Michigan)
- Superconducting electron linear accelerator with fission technology to produce Mo-99 with LEU targets
- Northwest Medical Isotopes (Corvallis, Oregon)
- LEU particle target fission technology
NNSA also provides funding to the National Laboratories to ensure that their technical expertise and specialized facilities are available to support the development of domestic Mo-99 technologies. All work at the National Laboratories is funded separately from the cooperative agreements and the results of the work are non-proprietary and available to the public.
Additionally, per AMIPA, NNSA and DOE’s Office of Environmental Management jointly manage the Uranium Lease and Take-Back Program (ULTB). Under this program, NNSA makes LEU available through lease contracts for the production of Mo-99 for medical uses. DOE/NNSA will take title to and be responsible for the final disposition of spent nuclear fuel and/or radioactive waste created by Mo-99 production under contracts for which DOE determines the producer does not have access to a disposal path. The ULTB Program will recover all costs associated with implementation of the program from the ULTB customers. DOE/NNSA encourages any producer interested in utilizing the ULTB program to begin discussions with DOE/NNSA at least two years in advance of needing LEU for Mo-99 production.