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A team at Oak Ridge National Laboratory opens a uranium-233 canister inside a glovebox. (ORNL Photo)

TerraPower, the nuclear research venture founded by Bill Gates, is joining with Isotek Systems and the U.S. Department of Energy in a public-private partnership aimed at turning what otherwise would be nuclear waste into radiation doses for cancer treatment.

The partnership matches TerraPower’s demand for radioisotopes with the federal government’s need to dispose of nuclear material that’s been stored for decades at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Isotek, a DOE contractor that’s responsible for overseeing Oak Ridge’s inventory of uranium-233, will use the proceeds from the sale of extracted thorium-229 to accelerate the schedule for disposal of the Cold War stockpile. In a news release, the Department of Energy said the deal will save $90 million in taxpayer dollars.

TerraPower will use the thorium that it purchases from Isotek to further medical applications of radioisotope technologies.

“As a nuclear innovation company, TerraPower seeks work that is both challenging and of great importance to humankind,” said Chris Levesque, TerraPower’s president and CEO. “We are excited to partner on this effort and expect positive health outcomes as a result. And I’m proud of the TerraPower Isotopes team making it possible.”

Representatives from DOE and TerraPower as well as Isotek and its parent companies — Atkins and SNC-Lavalin — gathered at Oak Ridge today for an event to announce the arrangement. Among those in attendance were T.L. Cubbage, DOE’s deputy under secretary for science; U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.; and U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn.

Jay Mullis, manager of DOE’s Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management, said the partnership is “a success for all involved.”

“Through Isotek’s innovative approach, we are able to accelerate one of our highest priority projects, spend less taxpayer dollars to complete the project, and provide material that will greatly benefit the public in the future,” Mullis said.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates launched TerraPower in 2006 to develop next-generation technologies for power-producing nuclear reactors, but the Bellevue, Wash.-based company is also looking into other applications for nuclear products. Earlier this month, TerraPower announced a partnership with a Wyoming company to develop a method for producing carbon fiber from coal without using fossil fuels.

Terrapower plans to use the thorium from Oak Ridge to make actinium-225, a different radioisotope that plays a leading role in targeted cancer therapy. The Department of Energy said the partnership should give TerraPower the capacity to produce 100 times more cancer treatment doses per year than the 4,000 currently available worldwide.

“This is a waste product that is now going to be used to treat people with cancer,” Oak Ridge Today quoted Fleischmann as saying.

Isotek President Jim Bolon said the partnership with TerraPower “has created an additional rewarding mission for us.”

“Everyone at Isotek has been impacted or knows someone impacted by cancer,” he said, “and this opportunity to provide a rare isotope in the fight against cancer while accelerating the disposition of Cold War legacy materials inspires everyone working on the U-233 Disposition Project.”

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