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Testimony before the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee on "Solving the Medical Isotope Shortage"

September 09, 2009

Testimony before the House Energy and Environment Subcommittee on "Solving the Medical Isotope Shortage"Dr. Parrish Staples, NNSA Director of European and African Threat Reduction

Chairman Markey, Ranking Member Upton, and Subcommittee Members, thank you for the opportunity to testify on the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) role in minimizing and, to the extent possible, eliminating the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in civilian nuclear applications, including in the production of medical radioisotopes.  As part of my testimony, I will briefly describe recent efforts to mitigate the impact of the current and anticipated shortages of the medical isotope molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) and discuss in more detail NNSA’s efforts to accelerate the establishment of a domestic commercial supply of Mo-99 that does not use HEU.  Finally, I will highlight how the proposed American Medical Isotopes Production Act of 2009 can greatly help to advance progress on the dual U.S. policy priorities to: 1) establish a secure supply of this critical medical isotope for U.S. citizens, and 2) minimize the civilian use of proliferation-sensitive HEU around the globe.

 Mo-99 is the parent isotope of Tc-99m, which is used in approximately 50,000 diagnostic medical isotope procedures performed everyday in the United States.  With half-lives of only 66 hours and 6.7 hours respectively, the supply of Mo-99 and Tc-99m cannot be stockpiled.  Currently, there are no facilities within the United States that are dedicated to the production of Mo-99 for medical uses.  Instead, the United States must import 100% of the domestic Mo-99 supply from foreign production facilities that use HEU in their production processes, leaving the United States dependent upon the continued operation of foreign facilities in order to obtain the Mo-99 needed to perform millions of essential medical procedures annually.  In recent years, unexpected shutdowns of the primary producers have crippled the global Mo-99 supply chain, largely due to unforeseen required maintenance necessary to keep these aging facilities operational.  Most recently, the primary foreign producer, which supplies approximately 60% of the U.S. supply, shut down for an extended period on May 14, 2009.  Further exacerbating this situation, the remaining foreign producers that supply the U.S. market are also projecting supply reliability issues due to required maintenance shutdowns of their own facilities for the foreseeable future.  The necessity of this key medical isotope for the healthcare of Americans, coupled with the deteriorating facilities of existing global suppliers, clearly highlights the need for commercial Mo-99 producers to develop new production capabilities.  This incipient supply shortage is unfortunate, and requires action to expand and ensure adequate Mo-99 production capabilities worldwide.  However, such actions can and should be undertaken in support of U.S. efforts to minimize the global use of civilian HEU.  The United States must now move expeditiously to ensure that a robust and reliable supply of Mo-99 can be produced for the U.S. market without the use of HEU.

 Historically, Mo-99 production processes have utilized the same HEU that can be used to produce nuclear weapons and nuclear explosive devices.  Underscoring the global recognition of the grave threats posed by excess nuclear materials and the possible acquisition of such materials by terrorists or rogue states, new technical advances in Mo-99 production processes—just as in other civilian applications—are demonstrating that HEU is no longer required.

On January 14, 2009, the National Academies published a report confirming that the production of Mo-99 without the use of HEU is both technically and economically feasible.  In addition to the National Academies’ determination that there are “no technical reasons that adequate quantities [of medical isotopes] cannot be produced” without the use of HEU, the National Academies also stated that “…the greatest single threat to supply reliability is the approaching obsolescence of the aging reactors that current large-scale producers utilize to irradiate HEU targets to obtain Mo-99.”  The findings of this report unambiguously support the consistency of HEU minimization policies with the full-scale production of medical isotopes, while highlighting the fragile nature of the current supply chain due to the age of the foreign Mo-99 production facilities.

 With our mission to reduce and eliminate the use of HEU in civilian applications, NNSA has been working for many years to convert research reactors from the use of HEU to LEU fuel.  We agree with the language in the proposed legislation which makes clear that the U.S. should accelerate its efforts to convert HEU research reactors worldwide from the use of HEU.   This acceleration is already under way at NNSA.   GTRI has significantly accelerated efforts over the past several years and, to date, has converted 57 HEU research reactors globally from the use of HEU to LEU fuels.  Through GTRI efforts, another 7 HEU research reactors have been verified as shutdown prior to conversion.   These activities have resulted in more than 320 kilograms of HEU no longer being used annually for HEU reactor operations.   

In addition, NNSA also has been working with both existing and potential Mo-99 producers for several years to convert or develop their Mo-99 production process to utilize non-HEU based technologies.  NNSA provides technical expertise, on a non-proprietary basis, to all existing and potential producers to assist in converting and developing their Mo-99 production processes in accordance with the U.S. HEU minimization policy.  Through these efforts, NNSA has established long-standing relationships with current and future Mo-99 suppliers and is uniquely suited to accelerate efforts to establish a reliable domestic supply with the use of HEU. 

The United States has approached the Mo-99 supply problem by focusing on near-term efforts to mitigate shortage problems, and long-term efforts to develop new future supply sources.  The U.S. Department of Energy, including NNSA, the Office of Nuclear Energy, and the Office of Science, along with other Federal agencies and programs, was directed by the White House to investigate options to produce Mo-99 in the short-term to supplement the available supply while new longer-term production capabilities are developed.  An Inter-agency Working Group led by Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Executive Office of the President has been established and has identified several options that could result in stabilizing a reduced supply of Mo-99 in 2010 for use by the medical community until a permanent non-HEU supply infrastructure is established for domestic production capabilities.   

For our part, NNSA is currently developing projects to accelerate the establishment of domestic commercial sources of Mo-99 without the use of HEU.  NNSA is working on several Cooperative Agreements to potential commercial Mo-99 producers, whose projects are in the most advanced stages of development, accelerating their efforts to begin producing Mo-99 in quantities adequate to the U.S. medical community’s demand by the end of 2013.  These commercial producers each use a different non-HEU technology, in support of our strategy to diversify the supply chain and move away from reliance on a sole technology and a limited number of facilities, such as used by today’s foreign producers.  We intend to spend approximately $30 million annually to establish a non-HEU domestic Mo-99 production process and funding for this effort would come from within the Global Threat Reduction Initiative budget.  

The American Medical Isotopes Production Act of 2009 is crucial to ensuring the success of these efforts to accelerate development of a domestic supply of Mo-99 with the use of HEU.  This legislation will accelerate greatly the development of a reliable supply of this isotope for use in the U.S. medical community, and further support U.S. objectives to reduce the use of proliferation-sensitive HEU in civilian applications.   I thank the Subcommittee and Chairman Markey, in particular, for your continued leadership on such crucial nuclear energy and civil nuclear application issues, and stand ready to answer any questions.