General Electric Abandons Plan for HEU-Free Medical Isotope Production

Business considerations have prompted General Electric not to move forward with a system it devised in 2010 to produce a key medical isotope without weapon-usable highly enriched uranium, the New York Times reported on Monday (see GSN, Nov. 2, 2011).

Molybdenum 99 through the decay process produces technetium 99m, which is employed widely in U.S. medical procedures, particularly for identifying heart ailments and cancer. The Chalk River nuclear site in Canada now produces the bulk of the material used in North America, but that site is due in four years to lose its operating permit. Safety concerns prompted the Canadian site's temporary closure in 2009, and maintenance requirements prompted a Dutch production site to suspend operations at roughly the same time.

The U.S. Energy Department has sought a means to produce Molybdenum 99 without bomb-capable material or potentially dangerous atomic systems.

General Electric vetted its new manufacturing method in test reactors and selected the Clinton Power Station in Illinois to stage the process on a larger scale. The company established plans to outsource components of the operation to various enterprises, including the Atlanta-headquartered firm Perma-Fix, which had developed a material to increase the efficiency of the technetium 99m conversion process.

The Chalk River site's reopening, though, prompted General Electric to reassess the viability of its business model. The company said it and the Illinois plant's operator believe "large quantities of molybdenum 99 could safely be produced” with the new method, but calculations “do not support the remaining cost.”

"We've put all the engineering aside" for the time being, though changing business conditions could prompt General Electric to again pick up the project, said Kevin Walsh, renewable energy head for GE Energy Financial Services.

The establishment of a new molybdenum 99 production method could be impossible as long as some facilities continue to create the material with bomb-grade uranium, according to specialists.

"The economics is key," said Parrish Staples, who heads European and African threat reduction for the Energy Department's semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration.

Staples has held talks with European government representatives in an effort to end use of weapon-capable material in the isotope production process. The old manufacturing sites receive state funding, he said.

Separately, NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes of Wisconsin and the firm Babcock and Wilcox have also received NNSA backing for their own processes for generating Molybdenum 99 without highly enriched uranium (Matthew Wald, New York Times, Feb. 6).

February 7, 2012
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Business considerations have prompted General Electric not to move forward with a system it devised in 2010 to produce a key medical isotope without weapon-usable highly enriched uranium, the New York Times reported on Monday.

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