Medical Scans, Without the Weapons-Grade Uranium

The latest technique for manufacturing molybdenum-99l promises a more reliable supply, while also allaying fears of nuclear proliferation.

Radioactive_SymbolThe U.S. has just received its first shipment of molybdenum-99, an essential material for medical imaging that’s being mass-produced for the first time with low-enriched uranium instead of weapons-grade material. The molybdenum-99 was shipped from South Africa to Lantheus Medical Imaging, in Billerica, Mass., for final processing before it can be used by patients.

The latest technique for manufacturing the radioactive material promises a more reliable supply, while also allaying fears of nuclear proliferation.

Molybdenum-99 is used to make the radioactive tracer technitium-99m, which is commonly used in noninvasive diagnostic scans. Doctors in the U.S. use the procedure 50,000 times a day to see, for example, if a heart is pumping well or if a cancer has metastasized.

Until now, molybdenum-99 has been manufactured only from highly enriched uranium, which has made many people uneasy. It’s no small irony that the very same stuff that doctors use to save millions of lives every year is exactly the stuff terrorists would use for the opposite effect — if they could steal it from one of the foreign plants involved in the first stages of production.

“It’s a sitting duck for al-Qaida because these facilities are not guarded like military facilities, but they have bomb-grade uranium,” says Alan Kuperman, an expert in nuclear proliferation at the University of Texas. He says the highly enriched uranium used to make molybdenum-99 is a nuclear terrorist’s dream.

“I’m talking about the identical material that’s used in the U.S. to make nuclear weapons,” he says. “In fact, it has higher enrichment even than the Hiroshima atom bomb.”

And that’s only part of the problem: There’s no molybdenum-99 made in the U.S. Most of the supply comes from two old, somewhat cranky, reactors in Canada and the Netherlands. So when they both happened to shut down at the same time last summer, for example, doctors and their patients were left in the lurch.

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Source: Tovia Smith | NPR