Construction and equipment installation has been completed by NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes on a new facility in Beloit to produce the medical radioisotope molybdenum-99. The isotope will be produced without using highly enriched uranium, reducing global nuclear proliferation risks.
Max Postman, program manager for the domestic Molybdenum-99 Program within the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, said the isotope is used in 40,000 diagnostic medical procedures each day. “That’s a huge number of people benefiting every single day from this isotope,” he said. “It’s used a lot of times in cardiac scans.”
Jim Harvey, senior vice president and chief science officer for NorthStar, said molybdenum-99 decays to create technetium-99m, which is the radioisotope used in health care. “The half lives of these two isotopes are such that you can’t make them in bulk and put them on a shelf,” he said. “They’re both short-lived, so the production has to be continuous.” According to Harvey, the new facility will roughly double the company’s production capacity.
Currently, NorthStar can meet about 20 percent of the domestic demand for molybdenum-99, but once the new facility is up and running, it will be able to meet almost 40 percent of the demand. The increased capacity will help to alleviate the supply shortages that befell the healthcare industry in November.
At this facility, NorthStar will use a new method of production for the isotope using an electron accelerator. This will be the first in the world to use such technology for molybdenum-99, including new equipment for packaging and distributing the isotope. While NorthStar has been producing molybdenum-99 since 2018, the United States had no capability to produce the isotope domestically for many decades. NorthStar has now become the first American company in almost 30 years to produce molybdenum-99 without highly enriched uranium domestically in 2018.
Highly enriched uranium is often described as a weapons-usable nuclear material. Over the last four years, Congress passed legislation to enable the National Nuclear Security Administration to work with the private sector to bring production back to the U.S. – without using highly enriched uranium. “We just recently passed not only our four-year history of reliable supply to the market, but also we passed another milestone of more than 200 production runs in the past four years,” Harvey said. “We’re very proud of what we’re doing.”
According to Postman, increasing domestic production of molybdenum-99 is crucial to support supply while also making the U.S. a global leader. “You could think of molybdenum-99 as the ultimate perishable good,” he said. “If you produce a batch of molybdenum-99, and you wait a little less than three days, about half of that material will have been lost due to radioactive decay.”
Federal regulators must still approve the new method the facility will use to produce the isotope. Once approved by the FDA, the equipment can be used to sell material to customers.