U.S. gets medical isotope made from low-grade uranium

CHICAGO (Reuters) - A U.S. company has received the first batch of medical isotopes made from low-grade uranium instead of weapons-grade material, a shift that could help cut the threat of nuclear proliferation, the National Nuclear Security Administration said on Monday.

The NNSA, part of the U.S. Department of Energy, said NTP Radioisotopes Ltd in South Africa delivered a large shipment of the medical isotope molybdenum-99 made from low-grade uranium to privately held Lantheus Medical, which processes the material for medical tests.

The shipment proves it is possible to make medical isotopes without using weapons-grade uranium, removing the potential threat that the material could be diverted by terrorists and undercutting arguments by Iran that it must produce highly enriched uranium to meet its need for medical isotopes, said Dr Robert Atcher, past president of the Society of Nuclear Medicine and chairman of the group’s Medical Isotope Task Force.

“It negates that argument as far as the Iranian justification for their enrichment program,” Atcher said in a telephone interview.

NNSA said the material has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It is usually made in nuclear reactors from highly enriched uranium or HEU, which can also be used to develop nuclear weapons.

Gary Samore, who oversees policy on weapons of mass destruction at the White House, said the move to produce medical isotopes from low-enriched uranium represents an important marriage of peaceful uses of nuclear technology and nuclear security goals.

“Years ago we needed HEU to provide the isotopes for diagnosis and treatment of disease. Now we can do it without using highly sensitive nuclear materials,” Samore said in a statement.

Technetium-99, a radioactive byproduct of molybdenum-99, is used in more than 14 million nuclear medicine procedures in the United States each year, representing a $60 to $65 million market. It is used primarily to detect heart disease and cancer.

The United States currently does not have the capability to produce molybdenum-99 domestically and imports 100 percent of its supply from foreign producers.

Atcher said the shipment does not immediately ease chronic global shortages in medical isotopes, but it does pave the way for newer, more secure sources of radioactive material.

He said only five countries currently supply the world with medical isotopes, which are made in aging nuclear reactors.

Last year, the unplanned shutdown of a nuclear reactor in Canada caused a global shortage and made clear the need for a domestic supply of medical isotopes.

Both Lantheus and Covidien Plc process medical isotopes from reactors into lead-lined containers called generators.

Nuclear pharmacies, including those run by Cardinal Health, use these to mix the isotopes with different solutions that are injected into patients, where they give off energy that is read by special cameras to test for heart disease or see if cancer has spread.

Editing by Philip Barbara and Eric Walsh