SHINE breaks ground on prototype facility in Janesville
JANESVILLE—Shaggy clouds that had threatened rain all morning began to part Thursday as SHINE Medical Technologies officials lifted shovels to break ground on the company's prototype and testing facility in Janesville.
SHINE officials might have looked at the skies as a metaphor for stormier times the startup company has faced. Efforts to gain regulatory approval and raise the finances the company needs to build a full-scale, medical radioisotope facility have not always gone smoothly.
The ceremonial groundbreaking marked SHINE’s first physical inroads in its decade-old plans to build the facility.
Project contractors said they hoped rain would hold off so they could build forms for the foundation for the 11,500-square-foot prototype building, which will be located on farmland across Highway 51 from the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport.
SHINE CEO Greg Piefer told The Gazette on Thursday that SHINE hopes the prototype, which it's calling "Building One," can be completed by the end of 2017, and that SHINE could be using it to test and demonstrate its low-enriched uranium particle accelerator technology “from tip to tail” by early to mid-2018.
The project is being touted by SHINE and city officials as a catalyst and precursor to the company’s plans to build a full-scale, nuclear medical molybdenum-99 production facility north of the prototype.
SHINE is still raising funds for the full project. But the company’s leaders have said SHINE could break ground on the main facility by 2018 and have it running by 2020.
“I’m happy today,” Piefer said in an address, during which he effusively thanked stakeholders, employees and city, state and federal officials for their support and hard work on the project since the company’s launch almost a decade ago.
Dignitaries and officials including House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke before the groundbreaking and a celebratory champagne toast.
Ryan called Piefer “dogmatic” and "tenacious," and he said SHINE’s prototype facility is proof of “a concept and an idea coming to fruition” after years of research, development and the at-times daunting processes of private fundraising and federal regulatory approval.
Ryan had scheduled several stops in the area Thursday and Friday. He said he sees SHINE as a company that’s helping Janesville "lean forward” toward opportunity and innovation and reinvent its economy after the 2008 loss of General Motors.
He lauded the city for its 2013 tax incentive package for SHINE and for the support he said the city has given to innovative projects.
Ryan also praised research programs in Wisconsin’s university and technical college systems, which he said spawn and encourage home-grown companies such as SHINE.
The rest of the world is taking note that a Wisconsin startup is trying to bring domestic production of the crucial medical testing drug mo-99 to the U.S., Ryan said.
The company sees the prototype facility as a test patch to show potential financial investors that its nuclear accelerator technology works.
The facility will operate as a miniature lab, allowing SHINE to test, improve and demonstrate its intended moly-99 production process using a particle accelerator and low-enriched uranium.
In July, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission decided that SHINE’s prototype facility could be constructed without a protracted regulatory process, and that licensing for the facility might fall under state authority. That’s because the prototype would use a much smaller amount of uranium than the full-scale project, according to a written decision by the NRC.
What’s not quite clear is when regulators could clear SHINE to actually begin using low-enriched uranium at the prototype facility.
Piefer told The Gazette on Thursday that said SHINE still has not learned whether the state or the NRC will license the prototype’s use of uranium.
“The question comes around to who regulates uranium,” Piefer said. “We’re going to proceed with the (prototype) building, and we’re going to build the integrated (nuclear accelerator) system as far as we can, no matter what. The accelerators will be there; the associated auxiliary systems will be there.”
He said that while the work is going on, SHINE will still “get value” out of the new facility because the company can continue to do research on setting up its production equipment and making it operate more efficiently.
“It’s just how much of the process tip-to-tail we can do with it. With the uranium (and operating license) in there, it’s the whole process tip-to-tail. Without that license, it’s minus that (uranium) part,” he said.
Piefer said he thinks regulatory approval, regardless of whose authority it falls under, wouldn’t come until early or mid-2018. The facility itself should be completed by the end of 2017.
“I’d be surprised if it (licensing) were decided and done by the end of this year," he said. "But that’s OK. We have a lot to do prior to that. We’ll be installing our systems, the accelerators, all that stuff has to come first anyway. There’s nothing to do with the uranium until all that (equipment) is in there anyway.”
He said if the setup process is delayed, a decision on uranium will be delayed.
“This may evolve as the regulatory process goes,” Piefer said.