U.S. Markets closed

Nuclear’s Future Could Be in Wisconsin Feeding Moly Cows

Jonathan Tirone

(Bloomberg) -- With U.S. nuclear power falling on hard times, an American company says it’s found an atomic niche that will feed rising demand for medical isotopes used to diagnose cancer worldwide.

Shine Medical Technologies LLC is using novel nuclear technologies to reboot American production of the isotope molybdenum-99. It’s the key element that radio-pharmaceutical manufacturers need to make so-called Moly Cows, units that supply doctors with technitium-99 tracers for medical imaging.

“The nuclear industry’s fallen on some pretty hard times and this is one of the few bright spots,” Greg Piefer, Shine’s founder and chief executive officer, said in an interview from the company’s headquarters about 70 miles southwest of Milwaukee. “Global shortages of molybdenum-99 have become commonplace. The shortages are caused by aging reactors that must be taken offline regularly and sometimes unexpectedly.”

Shine’s business underscores how atomic technology is used for more than generating electricity. Nuclear techniques and applications have also been widely adopted by agriculture, industry and healthcare. Production of isotopes is key to the sustainability of those activities.

American hospitals currently rely entirely on imports of molybdenum-99, or moly-99, produced inside nuclear reactors in countries including Australia and the Netherlands. Congress began trying to fix the trade imbalance in 2012 by passing the American Medical Isotopes Production Act, aimed at promoting a homegrown industry.

The Department of Energy is providing Shine with the uranium needed in its moly-99 production process from Russian material withdrawn from nuclear weapons under a separate agreement. The company estimates it could produce doses to treat a billion people -- equivalent to almost a third of the global market -- over the next 50 years.

There are only about a dozen radio-pharmaceutical companies that buy moly-99 worldwide, according to Piefer, who’s company includes former House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan on its board. Shine already has signed supply agreements with GE Healthcare and Lantheus Medical Imaging.

Isotopes production requires the ultimate in just-in-time supply chain management, according to Piefer, who’s building Shine’s production facility in Janesville to ensure easy airport access. The isotopes used in medical treatment only last for hours when they decay from moly-99, which itself has a half life of less than a week.

​Piefer, a nuclear-engineer who says his long-term vision is commercializing nuclear fusion energy, also founded Phoenix LLC which is supplying the neutron generators used in Shine’s isotope-production process.

Phoenix and Shine said they recently achieved a world record for the strongest sustained fusion reaction, a feat that took more than 20 years to break and beat the previous record holders at the Department of Energy’s laboratories in Livermore, California.

“These are stepping stones to fusion energy,” according to Piefer, who said the technology may also be also used to ensure nuclear fuel quality or manage waste. “Getting to fusion energy isn’t just a technical challenge, it’s a business and societal challenge as well.”

(Adds nuclear applications in the fourth paragraph)

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Tirone in Vienna at jtirone@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Reed Landberg at landberg@bloomberg.net, Stuart Wallace, Lars Paulsson

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.