Radioactive isotopes business moves forward with plans to locate in Columbia

How many people does it take to produce two milk jug-size bottles of radioactive isotopes?

A company called Northwest Medical Isotopes thinks it will take between 75 and 85 employees to produce molybdenum-99.

Mo-99, as it is known, is used in diagnostic medical testing after it decays into technetium-99. It is used as a radioactive tracer in bone, kidney, heart and lung scans. There’s a huge need for it, and it is almost always in short supply. The World Nuclear Association said Mo-99 was used in 16.7 million procedures in the U.S. in 2012.

The stuff is pretty touchy. It’s created by bombarding uranium atoms with neutrons. Six percent of what results is Mo-99, which the company then extracts and purifies. After that, it must be transported from where it’s made to medical facilities across the country and used within 66 hours, the half-life of Mo-99.

Fowler said he thinks that when Northwest Medical Isotopes opens its plant in Columbia, it will be the only company in the country using university reactors to produce Mo-99 commercially. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there are five major producers in the world — one each in Canada, the Netherlands, South Africa, Belgium and France. The facility in Canada, which produced 40 percent of the world’s Mo-99 supply in 2009, is set to close in 2018 because of aging equipment.

Columbia seems to be an ideal location, said Nick Fowler, CEO of the Oregon-based Northwest Medical Isotopes.

The centrality of the city means quick transportation to medical facilities all around the country. Also, Fowler noted that Columbia is home to a “highly skilled and motivated workforce that has a history in nuclear engineering.”

The company has applied for a construction permit through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and is now waiting for the “all-clear.” It has already signed a lease with MU at the Discovery Ridge Research Park for a radioactive isotope production facility scheduled to begin work next year.

Ashley Berg, MU funding programs coordinator, said the approval process is time-consuming and that she was unsure if construction would begin on schedule. But progress toward the company’s move continues. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission hosted a public hearing on the environmental impact of the project on Dec. 8.

*MU’s Research Reactor, which has been on line in Columbia since 1966, also produces radioactive isotopes. **The reactor is experimenting with Mo-99 and may produce it in the future, Basi said. However, the reactor will supply the company with some inputs.

“The MURR could be one of several university reactors that would help supply the company with the necessary material,” MU spokesman Christian Basi said.

Northwest Medical Isotopes will hire employees such as nuclear engineers and technicians. They will be hiring some very technical staff, but there is some question about where this labor will come from.

“At this point, it’s too early to predict any changes in the (MU) labor force,” Basi said.

The company began as a brainchild of a cardiologist and a nuclear scientist. The two were swapping frustrations in a Costco in Corvallis, Oregon. The shortage of radioactive isotopes was top of their list. The two then met with Fowler, an investor and entrepreneur, and created the company. After the facility is built in Columbia, the company plans to expand to one other location.

“There’s a huge need for production, and we hope to fill it,” Fowler said. “Without these isotopes, medical professionals struggle to give quality care.”

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By Marie Kalaitzandonakes, The Columbia Missourian