Award Gallery

Small Reactor to Help Solve Worldwide Medical Isotope Shortage

Award: Excellence in Technology Transfer

Year: 2020

Award Type: National

Laboratory:
Sandia National Laboratories (SNL)

A technology transfer partnership between Sandia National Laboratories and Eden Radioisotopes LLC of Albuquerque, New Mexico, is poised to address the global shortage of a radioactive material that cancer and heart patients depend on for diagnostic imaging.  

A medical isotope known as molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) decays to make technetium-99m (Tc-99m), which is then used in nuclear medicine imaging procedures. Mo-99 decays quickly, which makes it well suited for the medical industry but also means it cannot be stockpiled. One reactor’s unplanned outage quickly translates into a supply shortage for patients needing Tc-99m imaging. 

To address this need, Sandia researchers have developed a nuclear reactor concept that is low power and small in size, and uses low enriched uranium. This small design results in highly efficient and cost-effective production of Mo-99. Once built, it could produce enough Mo-99 to meet current world demand. Other, aging reactors are larger, require higher power, and were originally designed for research purposes. 

Eden, a company formed by former Sandia intern Bennett Lee expressly to commercialize this concept, obtained a license for the patent-pending reactor technology in 2013. Sandia knew a large investment would be needed, so the license was structured to be flexible, with fewer upfront fees and more emphasis on royalties than is typical. The deal also included incentives for Eden to build its medical isotopes production facility in New Mexico, where Sandia is located. 

Once built, it could produce enough Mo-99 to meet current world demand. Other, aging reactors are larger, require higher power, and were originally designed for research purposes. 

The patent was issued in 2017, and Eden secured funding in May 2019 from Abo Empire LLC, a Yates family company based in Artesia, New Mexico. The funding will be used to finalize a license application for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and to build the reactor and production facility. 

Meanwhile, the shortage of medical isotopes persists. Other companies with alternative types of technology have been delayed by cost or technology issues, while existing reactors in Canada and the Netherlands either have ended or are nearing the end of their useful life. Eden plans to be in commercial operation in four years. 

Eden has purchased land for its facility outside Eunice, New Mexico, where the workforce is familiar with nuclear-related industries because of its proximity to Urenco USA’s uranium enrichment facility in Eunice and the Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in nearby Carlsbad. 

Once the Eden facility is up and running, it will result in projected taxable sales of $945 million over 10 years, along with personnel salaries; city, county and state tax contributions; and economic development impact of more than $150 million over the next 10 years.