MU to build $40 million facility for medical testing isotope

The isotope can help detect cancer and heart disease.
The MU Research Reactor Center is finishing a two-year feasibility study to add the capability to produce the radioactive isotope molybdenum-99. At a cost of $40 million, the expansion would make the plant the only U.S. producer of an isotope used for cancer treatments.

MU is considering a $40 million addition to the school's nuclear research reactor that would make it the only U.S. producer of an isotope used in millions of nuclear medicine tests every year.

The MU Research Reactor Center is in the final stages of examining the feasibility of building a 20,000-square-foot facility adjacent to the research center to produce molybdenum-99, the "parent" isotope of technetium-99. Technetium-99 is used in about 15 million tests nationwide to detect cancer and heart disease.

MU recently received a $1.1 million grant from the Missouri Life Sciences Trust Fund to begin design work on the new facility and is negotiating with potential donors to cover the rest. In addition to producing molybdenum-99, the plant aims to do so using a less enriched form of the element that can only be used in pharmaceuticals and not weapons.

The Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists has called for plants that produce the isotope using the low-enriched uranium method at a national level since 2007. The LEU method would reduce the amount of uranium available for use in nuclear weapons.

Edwin Lyman, a senior staff scientist with the UCS Global Security Program, said in a news release that the project should be made part of the federal government's economic stimulus packages for its impacts on both the economy and national security.

"Constructing domestic medical isotope production facilities would create jobs, relieve our dependence on foreign sources and reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism at the same time," Lyman said. "This project would be a worthwhile component of any stimulus package."

Last year, the International Atomic Energy Agency organized scientists from 18 countries to conduct research for the MU facility as a means of promoting the use of LEU technology.

The additional facility would also help prevent shortages of the isotope in North America. There are only four existing molybdenum-99 suppliers and none of them are in the U.S. Because molybdenum-99 depletes quickly, it must be produced and used immediately. It cannot be stockpiled in case a facility is shut down, as has happened twice in the past two years.

According to the IAEA Web site that the increase in nuclear medicine technology has also increased the demand for molybdenum-99. The IAEA said shutdowns of reactors in Canada in 2007 and the Netherlands in 2008 have created critical shortages of the isotope. Only two other facilities, in Belgium and South Africa, produce for the international market.

Werner Burkart, the IAEA Deputy Director General for Nuclear Sciences and Applications, said the construction of more molybdenum-99 facilities is necessary to prevent shortages like the one in 2007. "It is very important to guarantee the uninterrupted supply of molybdenum-99 to serve the needs of the nearly 100,000 patients who undertake daily medical procedures with radiopharmaceuticals containing technetium-99 radio isotope," Burkart said.

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