MON AM News: SHINE’s medical isotope facility set to go online next year; DHS recommending COVID vaccines for young children

— The head of SHINE Technologies says the company is “at the end of a long road” with its Janesville medical isotope production facility set to go online next year. 

But the journey won’t stop there, CEO Greg Piefer told in a recent interview, as this step represents just the second phase of a four-part plan that could span decades to come. 

SHINE Technologies was founded by Piefer in 2005 with an ultimate goal of developing nuclear fusion-based energy production. But to reach that result, he knew the company would need time to build its technical capabilities while delivering value in the near-term. That led to the creation of the plan’s four phases, representing “the intersection of reasonable advancement and clear unmet market needs,” he explained. 

The first phase, which involves using fusion-based techniques for materials imaging, is commercialized and growing, Piefer said. This method of non-destructive testing, similar to X-ray technology, uses neutrons instead to inspect certain materials in aerospace, defense manufacturing and other industries. 

He said only nuclear reactors had historically produced enough neutrons to sustain this type of imaging. But SHINE developed a way to use nuclear fusion to meet this need “with a much cheaper, cleaner, safer system” that’s more cost-effective as well. 

“My hope is that ultimately as the old reactors go offline, we become absolutely instrumental to the continuity of that supply chain and even increase access to neutrons so other manufacturers who aren’t currently using them can make better, safer products,” he said. 

To reach the next step of the plan — medical isotope production — the company had to increase its system’s output by a factor of 100, while bringing down the cost per neutron by a factor of 1,000, he said. SHINE has now “proven all the technologies we need,” and received regulatory approval to build the world’s largest medical isotope production facility in Janesville.

By taking uranium that “at one point was either destined for or part of nuclear weapons” but later rendered safe to use and altering it with neutrons, the company can produce critical medical isotopes such as molybdenum-99. This material is used in millions of medical tests worldwide each year, but Piefer said supply chains for this and other isotopes with medical applications are strained due to older nuclear power plants going offline. 

“We turn uranium — once part of nuclear weapons programs — into medicine,” Piefer said. “We buy that material, once it’s been made safe, for something like dollars per gram. But [molybdenum-99] … is worth like $150 million per gram. So we say we’re taking low-value things and turning them into what I call hyper-value things.” 

— Looking ahead, Piefer says the company is “really ramping up our efforts” in pursuit of nuclear waste recycling, which represents the third phase of the company’s long-term plan. 

“The goal is to use those core competencies we’ve developed in phase two, increase the scale, and use them at the next scale up,” he said. “The simplest way to think about it is just decreasing the cost of fusion still further, and we’re really well-positioned to do that.” 

He explained that waste from nuclear fission power plants — for which the United States has no long-term disposal pathway — has a “tremendous amount of energy” left in it that can be recycled. 

“In some way, our phase three is kind of like becoming the nuclear garbage people … and hopefully doing the world a really big service,” he said. 

Once the company’s nuclear fusion capabilities have been scaled up to the degree necessary to achieve this step, Piefer said the technology starts to “look a lot like what you would build as a fusion power plant.” But with the current understanding of nuclear fusion technology, he said there’s more money to be made per reaction recycling waste than there is producing electricity. 

He said the cost of fusion energy production will need to become “super, super low” for phase four to be achieved. 

“We don’t quite know how to do this part yet, but it’s our hope that in phase three we’ll build enough of these large-scale fusion systems, operate them enough, establish supply chains … and continue to see evolution in the technological environment that lowers the cost of fusion still,” he said. 

To reach this goal, he said the cost of fusion needs to be lowered by a factor of 15. Compared to the progress the company has already made in earlier phases, he said “it’s actually getting easier as we go forward.” 

Piefer said the company is eyeing pilot plants for phase three in the next five years, and scaling those efforts within the next 10.

“Phase four I think is a bit difficult to speculate on, because I think all of the technologies needed to go from phase three to phase four … have not yet been demonstrated,” he said. “We think of that as sort of the 10-to-20 year timeframe.” 

— The state Department of Health Services is recommending all children aged 6 months and older get vaccinated against COVID-19 following recent federal approval. 

Officials with the FDA and CDC have now signed off on COVID-19 vaccines for children aged 6 months to 5 years. State health officials say they will “review and update our vaccination guidance accordingly” once the CDC releases its updated clinical guidance. 

“Providers will then have the information they need to vaccinate children in this age group and parents can make plans for their children to get vaccinated,” the agency said in a release Saturday. “The vaccines are expected to arrive in Wisconsin early next week.” 

According to DHS, more than 123,000 children in the state over age 5 have completed the initial vaccine series as of this month. Under the latest expanded guidance, COVID-19 vaccines will be available for about 295,000 more children in the state, a release shows. 

See more details: 

— Just four Wisconsin counties are seeing high community levels of COVID-19 activity, according to a CDC measure. 

That marks an improvement from late May when 18 counties in the state were grouped in the highest category for the agency’s community levels metric. Based on the latest data, only Lincoln, Marathon, Wood and Milwaukee counties are now in that range. 

The community levels measure captures new case numbers, new hospital admissions and the percentage of hospital inpatient beds occupied by COVID-19 patients. 

Meanwhile, 24 counties in Wisconsin are seeing medium levels of community activity, and the rest of the state falls under the low category. 

See a map showing community levels statewide at the Department of Health Services site: 

— An associate professor at Marquette University is getting about $1.8 million in federal funding to explore why men and women are impacted differently by seasonal changes. 

Jennifer Evans is an associate professor of biomedical sciences in the university’s College of Health Sciences. The five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health funds her team’s research into how patterns of light affect brain function, with a focus on seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. 

In a release from the university, Evans explains seasonal changes in day length can affect sleep patterns, attention span, appetite, metabolism, mood and immune function. 

“These physiological and psychiatric disturbances relapse every year with a large gender disparity, as women are at least twice as likely as men to be adversely affected,” she said. “Understanding the basis of seasonal disease and why women are affected so disproportionately is an area of critical unmet need.” 

The research team includes experts in eye physiology, the brain, cellular imaging and computational analysis, the release shows, with specialists from Northwestern University and Amherst College also playing a role. 

William Cullinan, dean of the College of Health Sciences, says the study’s results may benefit those affected by other conditions linked to light-induced disruption, such as jet lag. 

See the release: 

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