Sen. Bond: How to Protect Your Dog from Nuclear Terrorism

June 28, 2010
Ed Lyman
Director, Nuclear Power Safety

Last week, the Washington Post Style section ran an article on congressional dogs. The piece, featuring the devotion of Senator Kit Bond (R-Missouri) to his little dog Tiger, was probably supposed to be heart-warming. Instead, it was bone-chilling. This is because for months Senator Bond has been exercising an informal but widely abused Senate practice to put a hold on a crucial bill that would both benefit millions of Americans suffering from serious diseases and greatly reduce the threat of a nuclear terrorist attack. (This, by the way, is an issue that the Post’s news section has not seen fit to write about.) It’s great to know that Bond loves his dog. He should also show that he cares as much about the health and welfare of human beings and let the American Medical Isotopes Production Act, H.R. 3276, go to a vote in the Senate. The bill would facilitate development of safe and reliable domestic sources of the isotope molybdenum-99, which is needed for over 18 million medical procedures a year in the United States. The bill has been endorsed by an unprecedented coalition of organizations representing the medical community, radiopharmaceutical manufacturers, the nuclear industry and nuclear security advocates (including UCS). Yet Bond is preventing the American Medical Isotopes Production Act from advancing in the Senate because of an apparent misreading of what the bill would do. Bond has asserted that the bill could lead to a cutoff in the supply of medical isotopes to American patients, apparently ignoring the safeguards in the bill that are designed to prevent such a possibility. American patients are now completely dependent on foreign and increasingly unreliable sources for molybdenum-99 because the United States has no domestic manufacturing capability. And to make matters worse, most of these foreign producers continue to use highly enriched uranium (HEU) in the production process, a material that terrorists could steal and use to make crude nuclear bombs. Some of this bomb-grade material is exported by the United States to foreign isotope producers. This trade increases the risk of nuclear terrorism because foreign recipients of U.S. HEU do not protect the material from theft with the same rigor that we do. Terrorists abroad could steal poorly secured U.S.-origin HEU and use our own material against us. This is simply bad policy. The United States used to have a law, known as the Schumer Amendment, that put strict controls on HEU exports. The isotope production industry in other countries didn’t like these restrictions and lobbied Congress to end them. In 2005, Senator Bond successfully led an effort to gut the Schumer amendment and overturn many important HEU export controls. Now, at a time when the Obama administration has identified nuclear terrorism as the “single biggest threat” to U.S. security, there is an effort in Congress to restore common-sense controls over HEU exports. It is these provisions that seem to so irk Senator Bond. The Markey-Upton American Medical Isotopes Production Act, which overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives last winter in a rare bipartisan show of support, would provide a huge boost to efforts to develop domestic sources of medically useful molybdenum-99 using the safer material low-enriched uranium (LEU), which cannot be used to make bombs. It would also mandate an orderly and cautious phaseout of U.S. exports of HEU, while ensuring that the supply of medical isotopes to U.S. patients is never compromised. The United States would have up to eleven years after enactment of the Act to develop alternative, LEU-based medical isotope production facilities of sufficient capacity to meet the needs of U.S. patients before HEU exports would be ended. And even after that date, if the Secretary of Energy certifies that HEU exports are the only means for meeting U.S. demand for medical isotopes, Congress could authorize resumption of such exports for twelve-month periods. To characterize the bill as mandating a supply cutoff, as Bond does, is thoroughly misleading. No U.S. patients will be unable to receive the medicines they need as a result of H.R. 3276. In fact, without H.R. 3276, American patients are at much greater risk because of their reliance on aging foreign facilities. The largest supplier of molybdenum-99 to the United States, the NRU reactor in Canada, has been shut down for more than a year because of multiple leaks in the reactor vessel. Other aging facilities have had to operate under potentially unsafe conditions to make up the shortfall. Senator Bond is employing a classic Catch-22. He refuses to support H.R. 3276 because there is no up-front proof that there will be adequate supplies of medical isotopes produced using LEU to meet patient needs. Yet industry is by and large unwilling to commit to making the large capital investments in new production capacity without the kind of substantial government support that H.R.3276 would provide. Bond’s position makes no sense. Senator Bond, don’t forget Tiger is just as vulnerable to a terrorist nuclear bomb as the rest of us. Please release your hold on the American Medical Isotopes Production Act.