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Domestic production of medical isotope Mo-99 moves a step closer

Irradiated uranium fuel has been recycled and reused for molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) production, with virtually no losses in Mo-99 yields or uranium recovery.
May 13, 2013
From left, Los Alamos scientists Roy Copping, Sean Reilly, and Daniel Rios.  Copping examines the Buchi Multivapor P-12 Evaporator, and Reilly and Rios are at the Agilent Technologies Cary 60 UV-Vis Spectrometer.

From left, Los Alamos scientists Sean Reilly, Roy Copping, and Daniel Rios. Sean is looking at the Buchi Multivapor P-12 Evaporator, and Roy and Daniel are at the Agilent Technologies Cary 60 UV-Vis Spectrometer.

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Medical isotope production technology has advanced significantly now that scientists have made key advances in separating Mo-99 from an irradiated, low-enriched uranium (LEU) solution.

Los Alamos team produces molybdenum-99 from irradiation of low enriched uranium solution

LOS ALAMOS, N.M., May 13, 2013—Today, Los Alamos National Laboratory announced that for the first time, irradiated low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel has been recycled and reused for molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) production, with virtually no losses in Mo-99 yields or uranium recovery. This demonstrates the viability of the separation process, as well as the potential for environmentally- and cost-friendly fuel recycling. Medical isotope production technology has advanced significantly, now that scientists have made key advances in separating Mo-99 from an irradiated, LEU solution.

Low-Enriched Uranium as a Source of Mo-99

Technetium-99m (Tc-99m) is the most commonly used medical isotope today, accounting for about 50,000 medical imaging procedures daily in the United States. Tc-99m is derived from the parent isotope Mo-99, predominantly produced from the fission of uranium-235 in highly enriched uranium targets (HEU) in aging foreign reactors. The North American supply of Tc-99m was severely disrupted when the Chalk River nuclear reactor in Canada experienced an outage several years ago.

The National Nuclear Security Administration’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) implements the long-standing U.S. policy to minimize and eliminate the use of HEU in civilian applications.  In support of this objective, GTRI is working with U.S. commercial entities and the U.S. national laboratories to develop a diverse set of non-HEU-based technologies to produce Mo-99 in the United States.  The U.S. national laboratories aid GTRI’s programmatic mission by conducting research and development, engineering and design support, and proof of concept demonstrations. Toward this goal, GTRI has been working with Los Alamos to ensure its technical expertise is available to support GTRI’s commercial partners, including Morgridge Institute for Research-SHINE Medical Technologies (MIR-SHINE), which proposes to use a particle accelerator to produce Mo-99 from a mildly acidic LEU solution.

The Technical Demonstration

In support of MIR-SHINE’s Mo-99 production efforts, researchers at Los Alamos have successfully proven the technical viability of the initial stage of Mo-99 recovery from LEU solution through a direct scaled-down demonstration of the proposed industrial process.

To undertake the necessary experimental validation, Los Alamos researchers developed methodologies for preparing and analyzing uranium sulfate fuel, safely containing the fuel during irradiation at a Los Alamos Neutron Accelerator Science (LANSCE) facility and performing chemical flowsheet testing, using a separation flowsheet designed by Argonne National Laboratory.  The separation apparatus developed at LANL was designed to be applicable to both low and high levels of radiation.

With a short half-life of 2.7 days, Mo-99 is a high specific radioactivity isotope. At production scale, the post-fission solution will contain only a very small concentration of Mo-99. Unlike traditional HEU-based processes, the challenge is to recover this material from a vast excess of LEU and leave the uranium in the same chemical form to allow for recycle.

The team found that nearly all of the uranium could be recovered after Mo-99 separations were performed. The LEU fuel that passed through the column separation process was irradiated again, and then once more the fission-generated Mo-99 was separated in high yield. When the same fuel was irradiated a third time, there was still no observable loss in the subsequent Mo-99 recovery. The results confirm the viability of both the Mo-99 separation process and uranium fuel recycling, which can lower operating costs and minimize waste generation.

Capability Development and Future Plans

Los Alamos has a long tradition of producing radioisotopes for medical, industrial, environmental, national security and research applications.  The Los Alamos team has now developed a wide suite of new capabilities and is poised to serve the GTRI mission for present and future applications.

Photo captions:
1. Pressure-rated sample containment vessels were designed, fabricated and rigorously tested prior to use for uranium fuel sample irradiation.
2. A view of the Buchi Multivapor P-12 Evaporator, apparatus that can be used in the preparation of the uranium sulfate fuel.

About Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos National Laboratory, a multidisciplinary research institution engaged in strategic science on behalf of national security, is operated by Los Alamos National Security, LLC, a team composed of Bechtel National, the University of California, The Babcock & Wilcox Company, and URS for the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration.

Los Alamos enhances national security by ensuring the safety and reliability of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, developing technologies to reduce threats from weapons of mass destruction, and solving problems related to energy, environment, infrastructure, health, and global security concerns.


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