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Senate Passes Medical Isotope Production Bill

Richard M. Jones
Number 142 - November 30, 2011  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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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.     

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics