U.S. picks GE to develop medical isotopes

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Energy has selected a unit of General Electric Co to begin research on a domestic supply of medical isotopes, which are used in millions of diagnostic scans to test for cancer, thyroid or heart disease.

GE said on Monday the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration awarded its GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy unit $4.5 million to develop radioisotopes using a new technology that does not require highly enriched uranium (HEU), which can also be used to develop nuclear weapons.

A medical isotope is a very small quantity of radioactive material used to perform nuclear medicine imaging tests.

A global shortage of isotopes, sparked by an unplanned temporary shutdown in May of a nuclear reactor in Canada, has made clear the need for a domestic supply of medical isotopes.

The aging reactor is one of six worldwide -- none located in the United States -- to produce molybdenum-99 or MO-99, the most commonly used medical isotope.

GE said its new technology does not rely on the fissioning of highly enriched uranium and can be used with existing nuclear reactors rather than requiring the construction of new ones.

“This pragmatic approach addresses a critical U.S. medical community need while supporting President Obama’s goal of reducing the risk posed by global use of HEU,” NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino said in a statement.

GE said its technology could meet at least half of the projected supply needs for MO-99.

Technetium-99, a radioactive byproduct of MO-99, is used in more than 14 million nuclear medicine procedures in the United States each year.

GE said it will conduct research and development to confirm its technology will work on a commercial scale and determine the infrastructure and logistics needed to support commercial operation.

Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; editing by Gunna Dickson