What is a medical radioisotope?
Medical radioisotopes are radioactive materials used for diagnostic imaging and cancer treatment. Radioisotopes can be administered to the body via injection or oral consumption, at which point the radiation is captured by detectors. This enables the creation of an image in much the same way as captured sunlight is used to take pictures with your digital camera. In nuclear medicine, however, the light is high energy gamma radiation.
For cancer treatment, a radioisotope—typically one that emits alpha or beta (electron) radiation—is combined with a sugar that is readily taken up by the cancer. Once the radioactive material is concentrated in the bad tissue, the emitted particles damage the rapidly multiplying cancer cells, which are more sensitive to radiation than other cells.
Here are some primers on what these materials are and how they are used in the medical field:
There are also a wide variety of uses for radioisotopes in an equally wide number of fields in science and industry. For example,
plutonium-238 is used to power the Mars Curiosity Rover and the probes that have studied Saturn and Pluto. Certain radioisotopes make good tracers, with cesium-137 used by the oil industry industry for well logging.
How are you going to make these isotopes?
The best way available—nuclear reactors.
Wait, aren’t nuclear reactors dangerous?
Aside from the fact that nuclear power is empirically the safest form of power generation ever devised by mankind, the reactor model we intend to build is orders of magnitude safer (if that's even possible), primarily because they will operate at relatively low power. Whereas commercial power plants operate on the order of 500 to 1000 megawatts, our reactors will operate at around 14 to 25 megawatts.
Additionally, a feature of the reactor design is that it is inherently safe, or “walkaway safe.” This is due to a physical property of the fuel used by the reactor. Most concerns pertain to a core "meltdown," but with this design, as the fuel heats up, it is harder to sustain the nuclear chain reaction. If the fuel gets too hot, the reactor shuts down, eliminating the need for expensive safety systems and making it impossible to melt down.
Below is an example of this feature in action, known as reactor pulsing, in action. In the video, the reactor control rods, which allow the reactor operator to raise and lower the reactor power, are shot out of the core with compressed air. This causes the reactor to effectively undergo an uncontrolled, runaway chain reaction... which abruptly stops when the fuel gets too hot!
In fact, this type of reactor was originally designed to be, “so safe that it could be given to a bunch of high school children to play with, without any fear that they would get hurt.” This has been proven true over the course of 60 years of reactor operations around the world.
Why isn’t the medical industry solving the radioisotope supply problem?
Our research has led us to two possible answers: Companies are intimidated by the regulatory process, and they are uncertain about the economics of radioisotope production.
It is no secret that the U.S. regulatory process for nuclear technologies functions like a labyrinth and can be crippling, even for low-powered research reactors. This effectively deters even large corporations that have big pockets but not the desire, expertise, or patience to navigate the territory. By contrast, the folks at Atomic Alchemy have a combined decade of experience working with regulators, contacts with a combined century of expertise in environmental law, well-informed and creative strategies to avoid horror stories like the ones linked above, and an intense passion for the project that is necessary to stay the course.
The second issue, uncertainty in the costs associated with the production of medical radioisotopes, is also primarily due to the extensive involvement of government in the nuclear industry. All of the reactors in use by the current large-scale producers have been partially or wholly funded by a government. The National Academy of Sciences was able to guess a number with the disclaimer that the actual costs may vary by up to 40 percent, primarily due to factors such as different regulations in different countries, entities operating under different currencies, and the fact that the reactors in use have multiple, simultaneous purposes.
How will Atomic Alchemy overcome this uncertainty? Much of it involves being more experienced with the overall regulatory process. Additionally, we have performed our own cost estimates and are continuously refining them.
What advantage will you have over those producers that do exist?
Atomic Alchemy’s radioisotope production facility will be one of the only, if not THE only, manufacturer whose central focus is producing and shipping radioisotopes. Our competitors are threefold:
1. Research Reactors. The main producers of Mo-99 are research reactors run by academic institutions or governments. Their machines are generally used to investigate theoretical questions but they can be used, as-needed, to meet critical supply demands from the medical community. This means their systems are not optimized for industrial use. For example, they don’t typically have chemical separations facilities on site, which means some of the radioactive material decays before it can be refined into a viable product. All such waste drives up costs. On top of this, these facilities lack efficient supply chains and distribution systems, since they aren’t accustomed to shipping product. We would be more than happy to relieve the research reactor community of the need to produce radioisotopes so they can focus on their scientific specialties!
2. International Producers. Many of the European, government-run reactors producing Mo-99 for the United States are over 40 years old and require increasingly frequent, costly maintenance to avoid outages. Moreover, the longer the radioisotopes are in transit, the more material that decays before it can be put to use.
3. Domestic Upstarts. The up-and-coming domestic producers of Mo-99 are all utilizing sub-critical assemblies (meaning that they cannot sustain a nuclear reaction) that are driven by particle accelerators. This alternative to nuclear reactors, which drives a nuclear fusion reaction with ions to produce neutrons, is extremely inefficient. It requires an electric bill on par with the cost of nuclear fuel while creating a product that is much less pure, which generates more waste per unit and requires more refinement. These accelerators are regulated just as heavily as nuclear reactors, so their sub-critical nature does not give them an economic advantage, and they are not yet economically viable without the heavy subsidies currently given to them by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).
As a private, production-oriented company, we intend to vertically integrate much of the radioisotope process to reduce inefficiencies and build a modular facility that can be expanded as a stable supply of radioisotopes encourages their use and increases demand.