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Isotope Development and Production

Isotope Production

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) Isotope Production Program (IPP) utilizes the unique facilities and scientific expertise at ORNL to support the goals of the Department of Energy. Isotopes are high-priority commodities of strategic importance for the nation and are essential for energy and medical industries, national security applications, and for basic research. The primary goal is to make critical isotopes more readily available to meet domestic U.S. needs.

The ORNL IPP draws upon multiple organizations and scientific/engineering disciplines. It utilizes a variety of highly specialized nuclear and non-nuclear facilities to execute the program mission.  With the highest steady-state neutron flux in the world, the High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) is uniquely suited for heavy element production (i.e., the production of transuranium radioisotopes requiring multiple neutron captures) and isotopes requiring a high specific activity, as certain medical radioisotopes do. The adjacent Radiochemical Engineering Development Center (REDC) is a hot cell facility used to produce certain irradiation targets and chemically separate and purify desired elements from irradiated targets. HFIR and REDC are the source of more than 70% of the world’s supply of californium-252, a critical radioisotope that serves as a strong neutron source used in radiography applications, the energy industry, and for nuclear reactor startup.

After the Manhattan Engineering District mission was complete, electromagnetic enrichment of uranium gave way to gaseous diffusion, and some of the “Calutrons” (electromagnetic enrichment devices) were converted by ORNL for the separation and enrichment of stable isotopes and some actinide isotopes. Until 1998, when stable isotope enrichment was halted and the remaining calutrons were placed in standby, ORNL accumulated a significant inventory of numerous rare stable isotopes that today have a list price of approximately $360M. Since then, ORNL activities have been focused on dispensing the existing inventory and production of special isotope chemical and physical forms (e.g., accelerator target foils) using metallurgical, ceramic and vacuum processing methods for program customers requiring specialized products. Research and development is now being performed on modernized stable isotope enrichment methods for the future.

ORNL also hosts the National Isotope Development Center (NIDC). Funded directly by DOE, the NIDC is responsible for communication with IDPRA Program customers and the nationwide coordination of isotope production between all of the national laboratories, production facilities, and universities that contribute to the national program.