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PSR Helps Reduce HEU Proliferation Risk

Posted by Peter Wilk, MD on October 30, 2009

Back in June, PSR joined an appeal from a broad and unprecedented coalition of nuclear medical and nonproliferation groups urging Congress to fund domestic production of medical isotopes without bomb-grade uranium, to ensure supply of the isotopes while reducing risks of nuclear terrorism. 

On October 29th, President Obama approved $20 million to jump-start U.S. domestic production of medical isotopes without the use of bomb-grade, highly enriched uranium (HEU), by signing into law the 2010 Energy and Water Appropriations bill.

The president and Congress acted in response to a sustained coalition effort led by Alan J. Kuperman, PhD,director of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Program at the University of Texas at Austin. "This is exactly what we were hoping for -- a kick-start of domestic production without the use of bomb-grade uranium, to both restore a reliable supply of isotopes and reduce risks of nuclear terrorism,” stated Dr. Kuperman.

Molybdenum-99 is an isotope whose decay product, Technecium-99m, is used in the majority of 20-million medical diagnostic procedures annually in the United States.  For over two decades, the United States has imported its entire supply of this vital isotope from producers in Canada and Europe, who utilize bomb-grade uranium in the manufacturing process.  Recent production interruptions at aging facilities in Canada and the Netherlands have cut U.S. supplies and increased prices, triggering a partial reversion to less effective and more invasive medical procedures.
 
The appropriations bill conference report states: "From within available resources, $20,000,000 shall be provided to accelerate the conversion of research reactors to support the domestic production of molybdenum-99."

Complementing this year's appropriation, the House Energy and Commerce Committee on October 21 approved the American Medical Isotopes Production Act of 2009, which authorizes $163 million over five years to "support projects for the production in the United States, without the use of highly enriched uranium, of significant quantities of molybdenum-99 for medical uses."  The bill also phases out U.S. exports of bomb-grade uranium within seven years, to persuade foreign producers likewise to eliminate this risky material from their manufacturing processes. 

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