Key Senators Give Positive Reception to Medical Isotope Bill

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Publication date: 
11 December 2009

“We will try to move ahead with the legislation” said Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) to three witnesses who had testified on a House-passed medical isotopes bill.  Responding to concerns about shortages of molybdenum-99 used in tens of thousands of medical procedures every day, and the desire to limit the use of highly enriched uranium, Bingaman and the committee’s Ranking Republican Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) both expressed support for H.R. 3276, the American Medical Isotopes Production Act of 2009.

This December 3 hearing was the next step in congressional consideration of this legislation.  The hearing followed House passage of the bill last month by a vote of 400-17. H.R. 3276 was authored by Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) who chairs the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.  The subcommittee had a favorable hearing on this legislation in September.

Several of the provisions in H.R. 3276 were recommended in a report issued in January by the National Research Council’s Committee on Medical Isotope Production Without Highly Enriched Uranium.  The impetus for this report was a provision in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that called for a National Academy of Sciences study on the elimination of highly enriched uranium for medical isotope production facilities, reactor fuel and reactor targets.

In addition to national security issues, there have been heightened concern and awareness about the foreign production of molybdenum 99  after a Canadian reactor was shut down for repairs.  There are no U.S. facilities producing this isotope.  H.R. 3276 states that the Secretary of Energy “shall establish a program to evaluate and 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 authorizes $163.0 million in funding for FY 2010 through 2014 for this effort.

The House hearing  established the need for this bill.  Questions at the forty-five minute Senate hearing were primarily focused on the implementation of the legislation if it was enacted, an indication that Bingaman and his colleagues accepted the need for the bill.  Bingaman opened by citing the National Research Council’s report, and the bipartisan vote in the House on H.R. 3276.  He spoke of the need to minimize the use of highly enriched uranium.  Bingaman urged the Department of Energy to work closely with industry on the implementation of the bill.

Murkowski was quite concerned about the impacts of a shortage of medical isotopes.  She said it was a “worthy goal” for the United States to produce its own supply of this material, and said she was not as concerned about the national security implications of the small amounts of highly enriched uranium used in the production of medical isotopes.

Parrish Staples, Director of European and African Threat Reduction at the National Nuclear Security Administration testified that there were no technical reasons why a conversion from highly enriched uranium to low enriched uranium cannot be made.  He stressed the need for the department’s approach to future medical isotope production to be technologically neutral, and briefly discussed four techniques that will be evaluated.  Staples also spoke of the need to learn from other countries’ efforts.

Kevin Crowley, Director of the National Research Council’s Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board, also said there are no reasons why the conversion could not be made.  He predicted there would be “trivial” cost increases for medical procedures as a result of the conversion.

Roy Brown of the Council on Radionuclides and Radiopharmaceuticals spoke of the council’s support of the bill, and its importance as a way to establish a reliable source of medical isotopes.  Brown discussed several concerns about the bill regarding waste, environmental reviews of new reactors, and their licensing.

Bingaman asked what U.S. reactors would be candidates for the conversion, the role that accelerators could play in the production of medical isotopes (with Crowley replying that they could provide a very limited output), and Department of Energy cost accounting.  Murkowski wanted assurances that the bill will technology neutral, information regarding the licensing of reactors, and the amount of time required to construct a new reactor.  Murkowski also wanted to know what options the U.S. has if the Canadian reactor did not resume operations in the first quarter of 2011, as scheduled.  Staples replied that there is “little we can do,” and described an effort at the Office of Science and Technology Policy to review available options.  Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) spoke about the impact of medical isotopes in the control of health care costs, and the extent to which H.R. 3276 followed the recommendations of the NRC report.

The next step for this bill is for it to be reported out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and sent to the full Senate for its consideration.