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Stop holding onto dangerous nuclear material

The Hill

Monday, September 27, 2010

After depending for decades on imported medical radio-isotopes – produced in foreign facilities that use bomb-grade, highly enriched uranium (HEU) – the United States recently acquired medical isotopes made with safer, low enriched uranium (LEU), a move that holds great potential for reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism.
Unfortunately, Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO) is single-handedly blocking legislation, already passed overwhelmingly by the House, which could make such terrorist-proof production of medical isotopes the norm – both in the United States and abroad.

Make no mistake: HEU can be used directly to make nuclear weapons.  Indeed, the uranium employed to manufacturer medical isotopes is identical to that in the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.  Accordingly, the recent Washington Nuclear Security Summit of 47 countries issued a communiqué on April 13, calling for “minimization of use of highly enriched uranium, where technically and economically feasible.”

In November of last year, the House approved the American Medical Isotopes Production Act, designed to ensure the U.S. supply of medical isotopes and reduce the global use of HEU to produce them. The bill, co-authored by Reps. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Fred Upton (R-MI), passed 400-17.  The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee then reported it favorably with amendments in January.

The legislation in two ways fosters domestic production – without bomb-grade uranium – of Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), which is used to make the majority of medical isotopes.  First, it subsidizes the construction of production facilities that eschew HEU, by authorizing government cost-sharing.  This would eliminate the uncertainty about future cost-sharing that has inhibited investment in domestic production facilities.  Second, it facilitates operation of new facilities by authorizing the government “to retain responsibility for the final disposition of radioactive waste” under uranium-lease agreements – without which operators would have nowhere to dispose of this waste.

If these provisions were enacted, the U.S. Department of Energy predicts that within seven years domestic facilities without HEU would have the capacity to produce up to twice or more of the U.S. demand for such medical isotopes.  The United States no longer would have any need to import medical isotopes produced with HEU. 

Accordingly, the legislation also phases out U.S. exports of HEU for foreign production of medical isotopes within seven to 13 years.  This would strongly encourage foreign producers to convert their manufacturing processes to eliminate the use of HEU, which is feasible within that time period, according to a recent report to Congress by the National Academy of Sciences.

Indeed, South Africa is already taking this step. A subsidiary of the state-owned South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) recently announced that it would begin exporting Mo-99 isotopes produced using LEU.  The first production-scale shipment has now arrived in the United States for further evaluation and subsequent distribution to thousands of hospitals nationwide.  South Africa’s success in using LEU belies skeptics’ claims that converting to production processes that avoid HEU would be too difficult and time consuming to effectively provide medical isotopes on the global market.

Despite support for the Markey-Upton legislation from leading medical isotope producers, physician organizations, nonproliferation experts, and fellow lawmakers, Kit Bond has blocked Senate consideration of the legislation by placing a “hold” on it.  He alone claims that the legislation would cause a domestic shortage of isotopes.  Admittedly, in recent years the unexpected shutdown of several foreign production plants has interrupted U.S. supplies of medical isotopes.  But the legislation would fix that problem, not cause it.

By blocking the Markey-Upton bill, Sen. Bond inhibits domestic production of medical isotopes to address shortfalls of imported isotopes, and he paves the way for continued exports of bomb-grade uranium.  That not only puts at risk the vital medical procedures of millions of U.S. patients, but also perpetuates unnecessary and unacceptable risks of nuclear terrorism.

The recent 9/11 anniversary reminds us how devastating conventional acts of terror can be.  There is no better time for the Senate to take action to assure future production of medical isotopes without bomb-grade uranium, and thereby reduce the risk that the United States ever will confront a nuclear 9/11.

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