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United States Takes a Step Towards Isotope Independence

Earlier this month, the House passed a bill that will protect as many as 50,000 nuclear medical procedures a day in the United States. That’s how many procedures rely on nuclear isotopes produced by foreign reactors. The United States has been at risk of experiencing a shortage of these isotopes since the Chalk River Reactor in Ontario, Canada shut down this summer—and the shortage could get worse with the closure of the High Flux Reactor in Petten, the Netherlands. Those reactors supply 60 percent and 40 percent, respectively, of the medical isotopes used in this country.

But thanks to H.R. 3276, introduced by Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) with seven co-sponsors, the federal government will now begin to support isotope production here at home. The bill appropriates $163 million for fiscal years 2010 through 2014 to the Department of Energy so that it can support industry and universities in the production of the isotope known as molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), which decays into the medically usable isotope technetium-99m (Tc-99m). Tc-99m is used in tests for cancer, cardiac disease, and kidney function. Some tests determine whether a patient with a coronary blockage needs an angioplasty or a stent. Without it, patients might receive unnecessary surgery. These isotopes also identify the location of tumors in breast and bone cancers.

Medical isotopes can be produced using highly enriched uranium, referred to as HEU, or low-enriched uranium, called LEU. But transportation of HEU represents a national security risk, as it is “weapons-grade” material. Markey noted this in his floor statement: “Shockingly, the United States still allows for nuclear weapons-grade highly enriched uranium to be exported to other countries for medical isotope production. This 1950s-era policy simply does not work in a post-9/11 world.”

Wisely, the bill attempts to curtail the production and export of HEU while also allowing for the usage of HEU for isotope production if it is a feasible and expedient short-term alternative. For the long term, the bill promotes the development of LEU Mo-99 production. Hence, provisions for LEU and HEU Mo-99 production are contained in both the licensing and appropriation sections of the bill.

A National Academies of Science report from January found that eliminating HEU is both technically and economically feasible. Other organizations such as the Society for Nuclear Medicine and the Radiological Society of North America support the elimination of HEU in the long-term but stress the need for short-term solutions to the isotope shortage since the United States cannot get any LEU production sites up and running for approximately five to ten years due to the technical and regulatory hurdles.

Markey emphasized that the bill is technology neutral on his floor statement. “Neither this provision nor the bill as a whole give any preference whatsoever to any technology type,” he said, “The purpose of this provision is to give the Department of Energy the greatest number of options for dealing with the medical isotope crisis while also maintaining the incentive for reactors to convert to low enriched uranium fuel.”

The bill now goes to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

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