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NNSA Considers Clarifying Statement on Russian Isotope Commitment

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration Deputy Administrator Anne Harrington, shown in 2011. An NNSA spokeswoman said the agency would consider clarifying remarks in which Harrington earlier this month indicated Russia had committed to converting its medical isotope production systems to rely on uranium unsuitable for use in nuclear weapons. Experts say there is no such commitment (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo). U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration Deputy Administrator Anne Harrington, shown in 2011. An NNSA spokeswoman said the agency would consider clarifying remarks in which Harrington earlier this month indicated Russia had committed to converting its medical isotope production systems to rely on uranium unsuitable for use in nuclear weapons. Experts say there is no such commitment (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo).

WASHINGTON – The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration is considering clarifying recent congressional testimony that issue experts say could undermine efforts to produce medical isotopes using material that is unsuitable for weapons (see GSN, June 14).

The radiological isotope molybdenum 99 through the decay process generates technetium 99, which is used widely in medical diagnostic procedures. Historically, molybdeneum 99 has been produced using bomb-grade highly enriched uranium – of which the United States is a key supplier -- but NNSA initiatives in recent years have supported U.S. efforts to develop technology that would allow a switch to proliferation-resistant low-enriched uranium.

Some lawmakers and issue specialists worry, however, that a recent deal under which Russia will expand its medical isotope production using highly enriched uranium when a Canadian reactor goes offline in 2016 will undercut these efforts. Producing medical isotopes with LEU material is more expensive, making it difficult for U.S. companies developing this burgeoning technology to compete – even with NNSA support, they say.

Senator Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), chairwoman of the Senate Armed Services emerging threats subcommittee, inquired about this issue at a hearing earlier this month. Hagan asked Anne Harrington, NNSA deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation, what the agency was doing to help Russia switch to making medical isotopes with low-enriched uranium.

Harrington told the panel that the United States had engaged in a series of studies intended to determine whether some Russian research reactors could be converted to using low-enriched uranium fuel. Those studies “will lead ultimately to their commitment, which they have made, to convert their isotope production also to low-enriched uranium,” Harrington said.

“After a number of years of trying to move forward on this we are extremely excited that finally we are seeing some concrete progress,” she added.

Experts point out, however, that while Russia has in various international accords pledged to encourage the use of low-enriched uranium and to engage in research and development to that end, it has not made a firm commitment to convert its medical isotope production, which has long relied on highly enriched uranium.

For example, Russia did not join a March agreement between the United States, Belgium, the Netherlands and France to end medical isotope production using highly enriched uranium by 2015.

“That’s the only actual commitment to date, and Russia did not sign,” Alan Kuperman, an associate professor at the University of Texas and coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, told Global Security Newswire.

A Senate staffer, who was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly, also maintained that Harrington’s statement was incorrect and said Hagan’s panel expects it will be corrected for the hearing record.

Asked about Harrington’s testimony, NNSA spokeswoman Courtney Greenwald said Russia had committed to “reduce and eliminate the use of HEU in civilian applications, including the production of medical isotopes specifically.” She said Russia had made this commitment in “several bilateral and multilateral agreements,” including the work plan issued at the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington.

The 2010 work plan says states that participated in the summit “as appropriate, will collaborate to research and develop new technologies that require neither highly enriched uranium fuels for reactor operation nor highly enriched uranium targets for producing medical or other isotopes, and will encourage the use of low-enriched uranium and other proliferation-resistant technologies and fuels in various commercial applications such as isotope production.”

According to Kuperman, this means “Russia only committed ‘as appropriate … to research and develop … [and] to encourage the use’” of low-enriched uranium. “That’s not a commitment to convert,” he said.

Greenwald, the NNSA spokeswoman, acknowledged that Russia “has yet to make any unilateral commitment to convert its isotope production to” low-enriched uranium. She said “NNSA will consider whether a clarification to the testimony is appropriate.”

Kuperman and others are concerned that if Harrington’s testimony is not clarified, it could undermine legislative and administrative efforts to counter the anticipated effect that Russian isotope production using highly enriched uranium could have on the market for isotopes produced with low-enriched uranium.

“It’s not helpful to have it lying out there,” Kuperman said of Harrington’s testimony. “I really hope that [NNSA officials] will clarify.”

Led by Kuperman’s group, a coalition of nonproliferation and medical experts is urging House lawmakers to amend medical isotope legislation the Senate approved last year in order to address the concern that Russia could undercut the market for isotopes produced using low-enriched uranium.

A January letter to Representatives Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), calls for the addition of a “preferential procurement” provision to the bill that would encourage the purchase of medical isotopes not produced with highly enriched uranium through the imposition of taxes or by other means.

In addition to the effort on Capitol Hill, the White House this month released a statement outlining several measures that also appear aimed at countering the potential for Russia to undercut the market. While it did not mention Russia, the statement said the Obama administration would look to favor buying medical isotopes produced without the use of bomb-grade uranium through unspecified “government entities.” According to internal NNSA documents obtained by GSN, this could involve placing restrictions on Medicare and Medicaid dollars, and also possibly establishing unspecified regulations or taxes on the sale of medical isotopes produced with highly enriched uranium (see GSN, June 11).

Miles Pomper, a senior research associate with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, said the White House policy could serve as an example to other countries that international action is needed to counter the anticipated impact of Russia’s use of highly enriched uranium. That, in turn, could pressure Russia to convert using LEU material in isotope production. Harrington’s testimony could confuse efforts to get other countries onboard, he said.

“It’s definitely a mixed signal to other countries: Is this a problem, or is this not a problem?” Pomper said. “The whole point is to get the Russians not to start with HEU … to convert to using fully LEU conversion before they even really get into the isotope business and before the Canadian reactor shuts down in 2016.”

According to Kuperman, the White House would have little reason to issue this month’s policy statement if Russia had already made the pledge to convert for isotope production. Most other countries involved with producing isotopes have already converted or are in the process of doing so, he said.

Referencing the work on research reactor conversion that Harrington also discussed in her testimony, Kuperman acknowledged that the United States and Russia have reached a historical “high point of cooperation” on highly enriched uranium conversion in recent years.

Similarly, Pomper noted reports on Tuesday that Russia has informed the United States that one or two of its research reactors would be converted in 2014 (see related GSN story, today).

However, while significant, the progress on research reactors does not necessarily solve the medical isotope problem, the experts said.

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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