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A small Corvallis company took a big step forward this week when it won approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build a processing plant for radioactive medical isotopes.

The commission announced on Wednesday that it has issued a construction permit to Northwest Medical Isotopes, which plans to build a $75 million processing facility at the Discovery Ridge Research Park in Columbia, Missouri.

“We’ve passed a major milestone that we’ve been anticipating for a couple of years now,” CEO Nick Fowler said.

Fowler said the company hopes to break ground within the next four months and have the plant up and running 18 to 24 months after that. The 60,000-square-foot facility will employ about 80 people.

The company, founded in 2010 to commercialize a new technology developed at Oregon State University, aims to become a major U.S. supplier of molybdenum-99, a radioactive isotope used in cardiac stress tests, bone scans and other medical procedures.

The processing plant will extract and purify the isotope from raw material produced at a network of small research reactors around the country, primarily at OSU and the University of Missouri, adjacent to the Discovery Ridge Research Park.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission announcement said the company's application materials, which ran to more than 2,000 pages, demonstrated that the processing facility's design meets the federal watchdog agency's requirements for safety and environmental protection.

While the Missouri site provides a central location for distributing the purified isotope, which decays rapidly, Fowler said the company will maintain a Corvallis office for administrative personnel and research and development activities.

The market for molybdenum-99 is significant — according to Fowler, the isotope is used in about 50,000 procedures each day in the United States — but there are currently no American producers. That leaves U.S. hospitals at the mercy of an international supply chain that is prone to disruptions.

“There has been no domestic production of molybdenum-99 in the United States since the 1960s, and then it was for research,” Fowler said. “Having a domestic supply is and has been our primary mission.”

Historically the material has been produced in large research reactors by bombarding a target containing uranium-235 with neutrons, then using a chemical process to separate the molybdenum from other isotopes created in the process. OSU’s breakthrough involves an improved target design and more efficient use of available neutrons, enabling the use of small research reactors like those found on some U.S. college campuses to produce the material.

Corvallis-based Samaritan Health Services and Dignity Health, a San Francisco-based health system with medical facilities in 22 states, are among the venture’s financial backers, along with Cheever Capital Management of Albany.

For now the company’s focus is on completing its new processing facility and establishing efficient production and distribution of molybdenum-99, Fowler said, but eventually the company intends to expand its product line to include additional isotopes as well.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., offered his congratulations on the company's regulatory approval and the technical achievement of Oregon State researchers that made it possible.

“I’m extremely proud of the work OSU is doing to improve our country’s ability to produce medical isotopes right here in the United States,” Wyden said. “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s decision to allow the construction of an isotope production facility using technology developed at OSU is a critical step toward bringing this life-saving health capability to completion.”

Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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Special Projects Editor

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald

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