For decades, medical researchers have sought treatments for cancer. Now, Alpha Particle Immunotherapy offers a promising treatment for many forms of cancer, and perhaps a cure. Unfortunately, the most promising alpha-emitting medical isotopes, actinium-225 and its daughter, bismuth-213, are not available in sufficient quantity to support current research, much less therapeutic use. In fact, there are only three sources in the world that largely “milk” these isotopes from less than 2 grams of thorium source material. Additional supplies were not forthcoming. Fortunately, scientists and engineers at Idaho National Laboratory identified 40-year-old reactor fuel stored at the lab as a substantial untapped resource and developed Medical Actinium for Therapeutic Treatment, or MATT, which consists of two innovative processes (MATT-CAR and MATT-BAR) to recover this valuable medical isotope. One byproduct generated is a valuable isotope for medical uses, Molybdenum-99 which decays into Technetium-99m, a valuable radiolabel dye for marking cancerous cells in medical scans.
In 2019 The US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) selected four companies to begin negotiations for potential new cooperative agreement awards for the supply of molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) without using highly enriched uranium (HEU).
Mo-99 is used in hospitals to produce the technetium-99m employed in around 80% of nuclear imaging procedures. Produced in research reactors, Mo-99 has a half-life of only 66 hours and cannot be stockpiled, and security of supply is a key concern. Most of the world’s supply currently comes from just four reactors in Belgium, the Netherlands, Russia and South Africa, and recent years have illustrated how unexpected shutdowns at any of those reactors can quickly lead to shortages. Furthermore, most Mo-99 is currently produced from HEU targets, which are seen as a potential nuclear proliferation risk.