Source: Physics Today | David Kramer | January 24, 2020
The Department of Energy is caught between its intent to quit exporting highly enriched uranium and the need to assure US access to a key medical radioisotope.
Two nuclear nonproliferation watchdog groups and a pair of producers of the medical radioisotope molybdenum-99 have each urged the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to reject a Department of Energy application to export weapons-grade uranium to Europe. Their September 2019 petitions highlight DOE’s potentially conflicting missions to both end US exports of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and ensure an adequate supply of 99Mo, which decays into a gamma-emitting radioisotope that is used as a tracer in many medical imaging procedures. By law, the NRC must issue an export license for shipments of enriched uranium.
NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes, the sole US manufacturer of 99Mo, and Curium, a European producer, joined the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project in challenging DOE’s August 2019 request to ship 5 kg of HEU to supply the Belgium-based Institute for Radioelements. IRE says it needs one last shipment of HEU to satisfy the total demand for 99Mo and iodine-131, a less-used medical radioisotope, until it can complete a conversion to low-enriched uranium (LEU) processes next year. IRE claims to produce 30–40% of the 99Mo used in the US. The US is even more dependent on IRE for 131I, which is used in the treatment of thyroid cancer and other thyroid disorders.
At press time, the NRC had not acted on the opponents’ petitions to hold a public hearing on DOE’s license application. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette further opened the export door this month by ruling, subject to NRC approval, that such HEU shipments can continue for another two years, on the grounds that the global supply of 99Mo produced without HEU isn’t yet sufficient to meet US patient needs.