NNSA domestic medical isotope program faces sustainability challenge
A federal program that encourages domestic private sector production of a medical radioisotope may have difficulty in creating a self-sustaining business model, warns the Energy Department office of inspector general.
In a report (.pdf) dated July 20, auditors note that the National Nuclear Security Administration in fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2010 signed contracts with four firms for U.S. production of Molybdenum-99, the most commonly used radioisotope in the world.
The United States accounts for about half of the global demand for Mo-99, but has lacked domestic production capability. The NNSA wants to encourage domestic production because foreign firms often make Mo-99 through a process that includes highly enriched uranium, a substance the NNSA also wants less of in the world.
Each of the four contracts has a potential value of $25 million; as of February 2012, NNSA had reimbursed the firms for a total of $6.7 million. The NNSA's goal is to create a self-sufficient domestic manufacturing sector by fiscal 2014 for the substance, which also has the complication of a 66-hour half-life--meaning that it can't be stockpiled and so must be consistently produced.
But, in February 2012, one of the firms dropped out of the NNSA program after deciding that it's not financially competitive and another firm may not meet production capacity goals until 2018.
Even then, self-sustainability remains a challenge, according to industry experts interviewed by auditors. Some foreign producers of Mo-99 do receive government subsidies, which may undermine local production, auditors note.
As a result, NNSA and other federal agencies are "considering incentives" for producers of Mo-99 made without highly enriched uranium, the report says.
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