Shine, NorthStar Spar as Medical Radioisotope Race Continues
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the Netherlands. Most major reactors are at least 50 years old, according to research by Shine. Importing molybdenum-99 from across an ocean is expensive because the isotope’s 66-hour half-life means about 1 percent of finished product is lost every hour.
NorthStar plans to start making the isotope next year using the same method favored by U.S. scientists three decades ago, which is known as neutron capture. With this approach, the core of a nuclear reactor fires neutrons into a molybdenum-98 target to produce molybdenum-99. Harvey says neutron capture gave way to the current standard, a fission process that uses highly enriched uranium, because fission was “extremely efficient and cheap.”
Since then, concerns have grown regarding the risks of highly enriched uranium falling into the wrong hands. In an effort to prevent unauthorized development of a nuclear weapon, the U.S. will no longer export highly enriched uranium, Nature reported in 2013. Starting in 2020, reactors will only be able to use low-enriched uranium.
NorthStar and Shine seem to agree that one drawback of the move from highly enriched to low-enriched uranium is that more nuclear waste will be created. Where they disagree is on the question of how much waste new production methods create. Both were quick to point the finger at the competition.
“The cost of waste disposal is significant and naturally goes up when the market is converted from using highly enriched uranium to low-enriched targets,” Harvey says. “NorthStar is going to have a tremendous strategic advantage in cost profile related to waste. Our waste stream is extremely benign and low in cost compared to any producer who uses the fission route.”
Piefer says he disagrees, at least when considering the amount of waste produced on a “full cycle” basis. That means not only counting waste byproducts from targets, but also those from the reactor itself. And since Shine creates neutrons using particle accelerators, rather than going the reactor route, the company’s overall waste stream will be smaller than that of NorthStar, he claims.
“In the case of [Chalk River in] Canada, the reactor itself is producing approximately 300 times more waste than the targets,” he says. “Eliminating that big, nasty reactor cuts the environmental footprint massively.”
Shine’s approach to making molybdenum-99 starts with the accelerator, where deuterium ions and tritium gas are injected into a plasma chamber with a magnetic field, producing helium and neutrons. Then, there’s a fission process: The neutrons are fired into low-enriched uranium salts—rather than the uranium plates typically used in reactor-based isotope production—and the end result is useful isotopes.
NorthStar is also developing an accelerator-based manufacturing process for molybdenum-99, Harvey says, but those efforts are “a couple years behind” the company’s work using the neutron capture approach.
The accelerator technology Shine uses was developed by Phoenix Nuclear Labs, which Piefer started in 2005 before spinning out Shine five years later. Phoenix and Shine share a facility south of downtown Madison, though Phoenix president Ross Radel says his company probably won’t follow Shine when it moves to Janesville.
Piefer says Shine expects to get the construction permit it needs from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by next March, and to break ground sometime in 2017.
Shine’s investors have been cautious so far. A year ago, the company raised a funding round worth up to $125 million, but that was a combination of equity and debt, with the debt financing being provided in phases based upon Shine hitting certain undisclosed milestones. Piefer says Shine has technically raised about $45 million to date.
He expects investors will feel more comfortable backing Shine once it has the construction permit in hand. “They’re wanting to see that regulatory risk retired before they dump a lot of money into the company,” he says.