The U.S. Department of Energy has proposed an isotope production and research center at Oak Ridge National Laboratory that could be important for medical, national security, and research projects.
In a budget request released in February, DOE said its supply of certain key enriched stable isotopes has been depleted, making the United States more dependent upon foreign imports for enriched stable isotopes. Isotopes are forms of an element that have the same number of protons but different number of neutrons in their nuclei.
DOE said the demand for enriched stable isotopes continues to grow substantially, including for the medical, national security, and fundamental research projects.
The new center at ORNL, the U.S. Stable Isotope Production and Research Center, would reduce the nation’s dependence upon foreign countries for those isotopes, DOE said.
DOE approved the mission need for the facility in January 2019. Although the cost range could change, the current project estimate is between $175 million and $298 million.
It’s not clear yet where the center would be located at ORNL, but it would be on the main campus. ORNL declined to provide more information this week, saying it was too early in the process to comment.
Current production work at the lab is spread out in smaller buildings, which makes operations more complex, increases costs, and complicates security, DOE said. The new center would be a single facility with space for test stands and prototype development, and it would include electromagnetic isotope separator systems and gas centrifuge cascades.
In the budget request released last month, DOE asked for $12 million in the next fiscal year, which begins October 1, to continue the engineering design and for certain procurements, including for site preparations. If approved by Congress, the $12 million would match what was enacted in the current fiscal year for the center.
The next key decision, critical decision 1, or CD-1, is expected this fiscal year, according to DOE. CD-1 includes an alternative selection and cost range.
In isotope work related to the new center, ORNL has the Enriched Stable Isotope Prototype Plant. It re-established general enriched stable isotope production facilities in the United States, and it started operating in 2016, DOE said. It produces research quantities of enriched stable isotopes using gas centrifuge and electromagnetic ion separation technologies, DOE said.
The Stable Isotope Production and Research Center would allow the establishment of multiple full-scale production lines in both technologies, the budget request said. It would expand gas centrifuge production and significantly increase electromagnetic isotope separation, the budget request said.
DOE said electromagnetic isotope separation can separate isotopes of many elements to high purity levels but at lower production rates. Gas centrifuge production cascades can produce much larger quantifies of isotopes, but they are limited to isotopes that have compatible “feedstock” chemicals, DOE said.
DOE said the Enriched Stable Isotope Prototype Plant completed its first production campaign for the rare isotope ruthenium-96 in fiscal year 2019, generating the only ruthenium-96 in the world.
“Part of this inventory was used to enable a crucial nuclear physics experiment at Brookhaven’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider to study matter than has not existed since the early universe,” DOE said. “The production was accomplished via electromagnetic separation technology. Efforts have now transitioned to ytterbium-176, another highly scarce isotope currently in demand to produce lutetium-177 for the treatment of prostate cancer.”
In other isotope-related work, ORNL has the National Isotope Development Center, which interacts with users and manages business operations related to the production, marketing, sale, and distribution of isotopes.
Examples of isotopes produced by DOE’s isotope program at sites across the country include:
- actinium-225, strontium-90, and others for cancer therapy,
- americium-241 and californium-252 for oil and gas exploration and production well logging,
- bismuth-213, lead-212, and others for cancer and infectious disease therapy and research,
- berkelium-249 and plutonium-242 for use as targets in the discovery of new super heavy elements,
- selenium-75 for industrial radiography,
- nickel-63 for explosives detection, and lithium-6 and helium-3 for neutron detectors for national security applications, and
- arsenic-73, iron-52, and zinc-65 as tracers in metabolic studies.
Facilities include the Isotope Production Facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Brookhaven Linac Isotope Producer at Brookhaven National Laboratory, and hot cells for processing and handling irradiated materials and purified products at ORNL, BNL, and LANL. At ORNL, the High Flux Isotope Reactor produces californium-252, actinium-227, and many other reactor-produced radioactive isotopes. The Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge processes and packages lithium-6 and lithium-7. There is other isotope production work at other DOE and National Nuclear Security Administration sites around the United States.
DOE used to produce enriched stable isotopes using the calutrons at Y-12 from the 1940s to the 1990s, but the calutrons stopped operating in 1998.
The most widely used isotope in diagnostic medical imaging today is molybdenum-99. The NNSA is the lead agency overseeing its production, but DOE’s Isotope Program offers technical and management support.
See the fiscal year 2021 budget request for DOE’s Office of Science here.