Congressional testimony: LEU Mo-99 feasible, necessary in U.S.

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Parrish Staples, director of European and African Threat Reduction of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), urged Congress to support production of LEU-based (low-enriched uranium) molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) during testimony delivered before the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources on Feb. 1.

Staples expressed “the NNSA’s support for accelerating development of a domestic commercial supply of Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) without using highly enriched uranium (HEU),” and linked it with the broader global nonproliferation program to reduce and eliminate HEU in civilian nuclear applications.

“New technical advances in Mo-99 production processes, many of which have been supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and NNSA working closely with industry and our national laboratories, are demonstrating that HEU is no longer required,” offered Staples. Because the U.S. lacks a domestic supply of Mo-99, it must depend on foreign producers to supply the isotope used in 50,000 diagnostic procedures every day. Staples noted that the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation, which partnered with NNSA to convert its reactor to LEU fuel, completed its first shipment of LEU-based Mo-99 to the U.S. in December 2010 and currently exists as the only non-HEU producer.

“S 99, the American Medical Isotopes Production Act of 2011, will encourage Mo-99 suppliers worldwide not to use HEU and to develop a reliable supply of Mo-99 for the U.S. medical community," Staples reported. "The proposed legislation will promote the reliable supply of Mo-99 to hospitals throughout our country and will ultimately ensure the level of patient care that our citizens require in a way that is consistent with our nuclear nonproliferation goals.”

Staples noted that an interagency working group under the leadership of the Office of Science and Technology Policy of the Executive Office of the President is focusing on three alternatives:

  • Investigating options to focus on near-term efforts to increase the supply to the U.S. during periods when the major suppliers will be out of operation;
  • Coordinating efforts to maximize the success of the commercial sector to develop new longer-term production capabilities for the U.S. medical community; and
  • Working with representatives of the medical community to ensure communication about the timing of scheduled maintenance to more efficiently manage use of available Mo-99 supplies.

“With appropriate congressional support, the long-term goal of steady state production from LEU could be achieved globally, and could thus provide a complementary, consistent supply of the medical isotope to healthcare providers,” he testified.

NNSA is working with four commercial entities to develop a domestic supply of non-HEU based Mo-99, which encompasses multiple technology pathways including: LEU solution reactor technology; neutron capture technology; and accelerator technology. “The strategy is to move away from reliance on a sole technology and a limited number of facilities, as is the case with the global Mo-99 market today, [and] the goal is for each technology to be commercially successful,” said Staples.

Staples outlined existing challenges to development of a domestic supply. “To provide a level playing field for U.S. companies, meet nonproliferation goals, and build a non-HEU based industry for Mo-99, there must be a concerted global commitment that all new or expanded long-term Mo-99 production be undertaken without HEU. Very importantly, we must achieve full cost recovery across the entire global commercial industry,” he stated, while expressing concerns about the scope, costs and production timeframe implications of Section 2(c), the “Uranium Lease and Take Back” provision. Heavy government subsidies of major global Mo-99 producers threaten the viability of U.S. companies in the market.

“NNSA will use its existing, well-established program management and procurement oversight tools to ensure that the innovative non-HEU based technologies it supports are developed on schedule and that cost-shared funds are properly applied so that Mo-99 is delivered to the U.S. market on time and within anticipated costs,” averred Staples.