WASHINGTON -- A growing confidence among U.S. officials that Russia is serious about limiting the use of highly enriched uranium in the production of radiological isotopes for medical procedures may slow efforts to establish an HEU import ban, sources say.
Russian officials have now stated at least three times their intention to phase out the use of bomb-grade uranium in isotope production, a key U.S. official told Global Security Newswire in a recent interview. The renewed statements have led to an increased level of comfort in Washington that Moscow will make good on its promise.
In recent months, nonproliferation experts and some members of Congress have expressed concerns that Russia’s plans to export medical isotopes made with highly enriched uranium could undercut U.S. efforts to create a market for those made with low-enriched uranium, which would be more expensive but less risky from a proliferation standpoint.
Some have suggested that the United States institute a ban on the import of medical isotopes produced using highly enriched uranium so as to protect the burgeoning market for those made with low-enriched uranium.
In July, Russia’s delegate to a meeting in Paris indicated that Sergei Keriyenko, director of the country’s state-owned atomic energy corporation, had approved a plan to begin producing medical isotopes without the use of highly enriched uranium within five years. At the time, the announcement was met with a cautious reaction from U.S. officials, who insisted Russia had “not made an official public statement” on the matter.
Since then, Russian officials have twice repeated their intent to limit the use of highly enriched uranium in medical isotope production by 2018, Parrish Staples, director of European and African Threat Reduction for the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, told GSN.
Russian officials made presentations on their plans at the Oct. 1-3 International Business Conference of Isotopes Producers, Suppliers and Consumers in Moscow, and also at the Oct. 14-17 Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors Conference in Warsaw, Poland, Staples said.
U.S. certainty about the Russian pledge has increased as a result of the repeated statements, according to Staples. “We have no reason to doubt the Russians’ commitment to work toward the conversion of their [medical isotope] production process from HEU targets to LEU targets as they have stated at recent international conferences,” he said.
In the medical isotope manufacturing process, a target made of either highly enriched uranium or low-enriched uranium is irradiated in a reactor to produce molybdenum-99. The decay product of this isotope is technetium-99, which is used in a number of diagnostic procedures in the medical field, including body scans for cancer and heart disease.
While nonproliferation experts outside government have said that Russian use of LEU targets for isotope manufacturing would be a step forward, concerns would persist if the reactors where the isotopes are made are powered by HEU fuel, they say. For this and other reasons, the U.S. Congress might still consider an import ban.
For example, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department recently finalized a plan under which it will pay hospitals and other medical facilities more if they conduct diagnostic procedures on their Medicare patients using isotopes that were not produced with highly enriched uranium.
Alan Kuperman, associate professor at the University of Texas-Austin and coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, said the HHS plan “could help, but probably won’t solve the problem.”
Healthcare industry officials have warned that an additional $10 per procedure that the government would pay under the plan would not be enough to incentivize a switch, Kuperman noted.
“The administration itself says the goal is not to create a financial incentive for non-HEU isotopes, but merely to remove any financial disincentive, by leveling the playing field,” he told GSN recently. “As a result, if the two types of isotopes have the same effective cost, economists would predict that medical providers would be indifferent between them and continue buying a substantial quantity of HEU-produced isotopes, if available.”
Last month, Congress passed a fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill that included language pertaining to medical isotopes backed by Senators Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.). President Obama signed the bill into law Jan. 2.
Supporters have said the language -- which authorizes domestic projects aimed at establishing an LEU medical isotope source, bans HEU exports and creates a disposal pathway for waste generated at U.S. isotope facilities -- will help ease the transition to non-HEU-based molybdenum-99 production.
Kuperman, insists, however, that an HEU import ban remains necessary.
“Rarely have so many words done so little,” Kuperman said of the recently approved bill. “The only parts that will have any effect, as far as I can see, are the provisions for lease of uranium to and acceptance of waste from domestic producers.
“All the rest,” he said, “addresses problems that don’t exist, because we’re already subsidizing the domestic production and planning to halt HEU exports for targets in 2015. The law fails to address the one problem that does exist: Russia’s HEU-based production of [molybdenum-99] for export to the U.S. market.”
Kuperman argues that it should not be difficult for Congress to pass an import ban.
“The legislative language would be simple, and I can’t think of any vested interest, besides Russia and Nordion, that would oppose it,” he said. Nordion is a Canadian isotope distributor that has contracted with Moscow.
An outright ban on imports of medical isotopes made through the use of highly enriched uranium may be premature, however, administration and congressional sources suggest. Staples said that Russian officials have stated an intention to also switch to LEU fuel, but the timeline for such conversion is less clear than for the change in targets.
In the meantime, the stability of the global supply of medical isotopes remains on shaky ground, and producers often require government subsidies, Staples said.
“As the molybdenum-99 community works to transition" to a situation where the isotope supply is stable, requires no subsides and is not derived from highly enriched uranium, “a delicate balance is required to ensure that the reliability of the molybdenum-99 supply is maintained for the needs of medical patients while global HEU minimization objectives are accomplished,” he said.
Congress will likely wait to see how negotiations with Russia over limiting HEU use play out before deciding whether to pursue an outright legislative ban on medical isotopes produced using the bomb-grade substance, according to a Democratic aide to a senior lawmaker.
The staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to not being authorized to discuss the subject publicly, noted that the medical isotope legislation that was approved last month had died in two prior Congresses because of opposition from some Republicans.
An import ban could be equally -- if not more -- controversial, the Democratic aide suggested. For this reason, lawmakers opted to go with language on which they had already reached consensus when finalizing the defense authorization bill, the staffer said.