Senate Passes Medical Isotope Production Bill

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Publication date: 
30 November 2011

Approximately  41,000 medical diagnostic imaging procedures are performed every day in the  United States using a radioisotope produced by reactors in Canada and the  Netherlands.  Recent Senate passage of a  bill has moved the U.S. a step closer to the domestic production of this vital material.

On  November 17 the Senate quickly passed S. 99, The American Medical Isotopes  Production Act of 2011.  The House  approved a similar measure two years ago.   S. 99 requires the Secretary of Energy to “establish a  technology-neutral 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 purposes.” 

Rep.  Edward Markey (D-MA) introduced H.R. 3276 in July 2009.  The bill was endorsed by several  organizations, including the American Association of Physicists in Medicine, a  Member Society of the American Institute of Physics.  A letter from AAPM’s president explained “the  American Medical Isotope Production Act of 2009, will help patients who rely on  medical imaging for the treatment and diagnosis of many common cancers by  authorizing funding and providing a clear road map to create a domestic supply  of Mo-99 while also allowing a responsible timeline and safeguards for the  transfer of HEU [highly enriched uranium] to low enriched uranium (LEU); therefore,  AAPM endorses the American Medical Isotope Production Act of 2009.”  The House overwhelmingly passed this measure  in November 2009.  This bill died when  the 111th Congress adjourned in January of this year, and it will  have to be reintroduced.

In  January, Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), chairman of the Senate Energy and  Natural Resources Committee, introduced S. 99, which was identical to the bill  passed by the House.  Committee Ranking  Member Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) was an original cosponsor.  Before the committee approved the bill in  April several changes were made to its provisions, including several new definitions,  restrictions on reactor exemptions, clarification of a uranium lease and  take-back program, and a requirement for environmental reviews by the Department  of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

S.  99 and H.R. 3276 authorize a new Department of Energy program to support the domestic  production of molybdenium-99, and seek to phase out DOE’s exportation of  proliferation-sensitive HEU to foreign reactors used in the production of this  isotope.  S. 99 requires that DOE “provide  assistance for . . . the development of fuels, targets, and processes for  domestic molybdenum-99 production that do not use highly enriched uranium” and  commercial operations using these fuels, targets, and processes.  The DOE program is to be technology-neutral  in the evaluation of a production process that is to be judged on timeliness,  production capacity, and cost.   The  Senate bill authorizes $150 million in appropriations for this program in  Fiscal Years 2012 through 2016; note that actual funding is contingent on  annual appropriations measures. 

Further  information on S. 99 is available in Senate Report 112-17, including the text and  a section-by-section analysis of the bill, background and legislative history,  and cost and budgetary considerations.

In  a related development, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced  earlier this month that it had signed a fourth domestic commercial cooperative  agreement “to further the development of accelerator-based technology to produce  molybdenum (Mo-99) in the United States.”   This technology will not use highly enriched uranium.  Last December, the first shipment of  molybdenum-99 produced in a South African reactor with low enriched uranium,  with the assistance of the NNSA, was received in the United States.