House Overwhelmingly Passes Medical Isotope Bill

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Publication date: 
18 November 2009

Fifty thousand medical procedures are performed every day in the United States with a medical isotope produced in foreign countries.  Responding to the shutdown of the main reactor supplying this isotope, and because of concerns about the U.S. export of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) used in its production, the House of Representatives voted 400-17 to pass a bill encouraging the production of molybdenum-99 in the United States.

Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) authored this bill, H.R. 3276.  Markey’s Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment held a hearing  on this legislation, the American Medical Isotopes Production Act of 2009, in September.  Witnesses described the difficulties stemming from the dramatic reduction in the supply of this isotope, concerns about use of reactors using HEU for the production of Mo-99, and their support of the bill.  H.R. 3276 would authorize, from FY 2011 through FY 2014,  the expenditure of $163 million for the establishment of a program at the Department of Energy to support industry and universities in the domestic production of this isotope using low enriched uranium (LEU).

The bill was considered on the House floor on November 5.   Markey described the medical benefits of H.R 3276 as follows:

“The bipartisan bill authorizes $163 million for the Department of Energy to evaluate and support projects in the private sector or at universities to develop domestic sources of the most critical medical isotopes. This is necessary because we currently face a daunting supply shortage caused by technical problems at the aging foreign reactors upon which we are presently reliant. With a robust and reliable domestic production capacity, the 50,000 daily procedures which normally occur in this country, including for cancer scans and bone and brain imaging, will be secure.”

Markey then outlined the national security implications of the legislation:

“The nuclear nonproliferation benefits of this bill are significant and they are timely. 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. It is dangerous, unnecessary, and it must come to an end. We simply cannot afford to have additional nuclear weapons materials in circulation when we know that terrorists would like nothing more than to steal or buy such dangerous materials.”

Joining Markey in supporting the bill was cosponsor Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), the subcommittee’s Ranking Republican Member:

“So what this bill does, it will help insure a reliable supply of the most critical isotopes that are produced here in the U.S. Today, with the passage of this bill, we are a step closer to ensuring the tens of thousands of Americans who seek diagnosis and treatment every day promptly receive the care that they need. Literally, the clock is ticking, and the well-being of countless folks continues to hang in the balance.    I would note that there is a good laundry list of organizations that support this legislation, among them: American Association of Physicists in Medicine; American College of Radiology; American College of Cardiology; as well as the American Society of Nuclear Cardiology.      We don't want to deny Americans this long-practiced medical procedure which we know produces early diagnosis of a good number of diseases, and we can save countless American lives.”

Of note, there was a discussion between Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) and Markey about U.S. research reactors that are converting from HEU to LEU fuel.  Inslee said:

“I would like to clarify with Mr. Markey that the purpose of section 3(a)(3) which allows reactors that are in the process of converting from highly enriched uranium to low enriched uranium fuel to qualify for funds under this bill. It is my understanding that this provision should not be interpreted as giving any preferences to these reactors and that all applicants for these funds will be given full and equal consideration”

Markey replied:

“The gentleman is correct. Neither this provision nor the bill as a whole give any preference whatsoever to any technology type. 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 includes several conditions on reactors using the exemption to ensure that their conversion to low enriched uranium fuel is successful. I fully expect the Department of Energy to give full consideration to every application for these funds, and to do so in an equitable and technology-neutral manner.”

The provision which Inslee referred to, section 3(a)(3) reads as follows:

“(3) EXEMPTION.--An existing reactor fueled with highly enriched uranium shall not be disqualified from the program if the Secretary of Energy determines that– . . .     (C) the reactor operator has provided a current report on the status of its efforts to convert the reactor to an alternative nuclear reactor fuel enriched in the isotope U-235 to less than 20 percent, and an anticipated schedule for completion of conversion.”

It is notable that at a time when there is such a high degree of conflict on Capitol Hill that Chairman Markey and Ranking Republican Member Upton remarked on the cooperation there had been between both parties.  Said Markey:

“This is also a bipartisan bill, and I would like very much to thank my friend Fred Upton from Michigan for working in such a bipartisan fashion. This is the way it should be done, and we thank him and we thank the other members of the minority and the majority for working towards this conclusion. You could not have a more excellent partner. Mr. Waxman and I and the other members of the committee want to note the incredible cooperation that did exist.”

Upton later responded:

“I would urge my colleagues on both sides to support this. Again, I congratulate the speed with which our committee held hearings, moved this through both the subcommittee and full committee. Both Mr. Waxman and Barton are to be complimented, and particularly my friend, Ed Markey, who recognized this very early, and we worked together to get it to the House floor.”

Markey closed the debate on the legislation by stating:

“This is, in my opinion, a very important piece of legislation. It makes a connection between the nuclear medicine that is practiced in this country and the nuclear proliferation issue that we are trying to solve around the world. So this really does begin to draw that line between atoms for peace and atoms for war in a way which I think we can all on a bipartisan basis come to support. History has been pointing us in this direction. This legislation is something that all Members of this Chamber can be proud of.”

H.R. 3276 is now pending before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, chaired by Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), with the Ranking Republican Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).