Today, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, praised passage of a provision in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act based on H.R. 3276, the bipartisan American Medical Isotopes Production Act of 2010 that he co-authored and that passed the House by a vote of 400-17 in the last Congress. The provisions, which were attached by Senators Bingaman and Murkowski during the Senate's consideration of the defense bill, are designed to address the looming crisis in nuclear medicine by incentivizing the development of a robust and reliable domestic supply of the most critical medical isotope, molybdenum-99.
"The United States could soon face a crisis in nuclear medicine," said Rep. Markey. "Because the foreign nuclear reactors currently relied upon to make most medical isotopes are aging and often require extensive maintenance and shutdowns, the availability of millions of critical procedures performed in this country each year is regularly at risk. These provisions will ensure that Americans will continue to have access to these vital medical procedures by establishing a robust domestic production of molybdenum-99 for medical uses, while also closing an important nonproliferation loophole to restrict the export of highly enriched uranium. I commend and thank Senators Bingaman and Murkowski for their strong leadership, and thank my colleagues on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, House Energy and Commerce Committee and House Science and Technology Committee for their assistance in ensuring that the provisions will be enacted into law."
The medical isotope technetium-99m, a decay product of molybdenum-99, is used in more than 14 million nuclear medicine procedures each year in the United States, including for the detection and staging of cancer and the detection of heart disease. However, the United States does not currently produce these critical isotopes, and is largely reliant upon foreign producers that make it using aging nuclear reactors. When these reactors have been shut down for extended periods of time for repair and maintenance, shortages in these critical isotopes has resulted, and patients have been faced with delays, more intrusive or more costly medical procedures. Just last month, the HFR Petten reactor, which produces medical isotopes in the Netherlands, was forced to shut down because of multiple tritium leaks discovered during routine maintenance, and it is unclear when the necessary repairs will be complete and whether isotopes shortages will be experienced as a result.
The provisions in the bill will also close a long-neglected loophole in U.S. nuclear nonproliferation law, by ending the export of highly enriched uranium for medical isotope production. Highly enriched uranium is nuclear bomb material, and ceasing its use for commercial applications is an important nonproliferation goal. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences concluded in an authoritative study that there are "no technical reasons that adequate quantities cannot be produced" without the use of highly enriched uranium, and that making medical isotopes from technologies that do not require it could be accomplished in seven to ten years.