U.S. shows interest in medical isotope production

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Image source: Canadian Nuclear Association (CNA)

The extended shutdown of the troubled nuclear reactor at Chalk River has the U.S. government poised to invest millions to get back into the business of medical isotopes--a move that could eventually push Canada out of that industry, according to a report in the Toronto Star.

"The United States is at the nexus of two related priorities: Discouraging the use of proliferation attractive (highly enriched uranium) in civilian commerce, and a health crisis from the lack of sufficient supplies of (molybdenum-99)," said Parrish Staples, director of the U.S. Office of European and African Threat Reduction, in a presentation last week. "The volatility of the current supply stream of (molybdenum-99) and the issue of (highly enriched uranium) in the civilian sector have drawn attention to the need for new producers to enter the (molybdenum-99) supply chain."

Staples said it would cost about $120 million to set up a process for domestic production of molybdenum-99 using low-enriched uranium.

National Nuclear Security Administration spokesperson Damien LaVera said the government is evaluating technologies that might ensure a secure, reliable supply of isotopes without using weapons-grade uranium.

Alan Kuperman, director of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Program at the University of Texas in Austin, said the developments show the U.S. government is finally serious about domestic production.

Natural Resources Canada spokesperson Micheline Joanisse said that while Ottawa supports the efforts by Atomic Energy of Canada to renew its license for the Chalk River reactor until 2016, it also welcomes any action to improve the stability of the global supply of medical isotopes.