US and Russia Can End Use of Weapons-Usable Uranium for Medical Uses

Miles Pomper
February 25, 2014

weapons usable uranium

Radiation Cancer Treatment, Wikimedia Commons

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Ending HEU Use in Medical Isotope Production: Options for Russian-US Cooperation

Ending Weapons-Usable Uranium

A new report co-authored by CNS Senior Research Associate Miles Pomper recommends steps for the United States and Russia to cooperate in ending Russian use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in medical isotope production, an important step in keeping this nuclear weapons material from terrorists.

Great progress has been achieved in recent years in minimizing civilian use of HEU as part of the international efforts to reduce the nuclear terrorism threat. In particular, the leading global suppliers of the molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) isotope, which is widely used in medical diagnostics, are taking steps to reduce and, in the medium time frame, completely eliminate the use of HEU in the production of medical isotopes. Major new steps towards phasing out HEU use in medical isotopes production could be announced at the Nuclear Security Summit that will take place in The Hague on March 24-25, 2014.

The Russian nuclear industry has set for itself an ambitious goal of becoming one of the three top global suppliers of Mo-99, used in 80 per cent of the medical procedures involving isotopes particularly as a diagnostic tool. Growing Russian production could help stabilize the global Mo-99 market, which faced severe shortages on several occasions in 2005-2013. According to some estimates, in 2010 during a six month period medical facilities around the world were unable to perform diagnostic procedures for several million people due to the shortage of Mo-99; the shortfall was estimated at 7 million doses.

However, until recently, Russia had been bucking global trends by planning to use HEU fuels and targets rather than safer low enriched uranium (LEU) for much of this production. The ‘Ending HEU Use in Medical Isotope Production: Options for Russian-US Cooperation’ report co-authored by the Moscow-based Center for Energy for Energy and Security Studies (CENESS) analyses what can be done by Moscow and Washington to harmonize the Russian producers’ plans to win a share of the global market, while at the same time facilitating the Russian nuclear industry’s transition to new market requirements for producing Mo-99 without HEU.

The authors suggest that the United States could consider some or all of the following commitments:

  • To carry out bulk purchases of pharmaceuticals that use Russian non-HEU based Mo-99 when available, for an agreed period and to an agreed amount. A particular focus could be purchases by US government agencies, such as the Veterans Health Administration and the Defense Department. This could begin with NIFKhI.
  • Assistance in winning expedited licensing approval from the FDA for Tc-99m pharmaceuticals based on Russian LEU-based Mo-99.
  • Cost-sharing support for converting NIFKhI and NIIAR to the use of LEU targets through co-funding of related R&D work done jointly by Russian and US scientists.
  • US informal assistance to Russian LEU research reactor fuel producers to spur competition in exports to third country research reactors.
  • Continued joint research on high-density LEU fuels.

Russia could consider the following commitments:

  • Committing to a timetable-based road map to end HEU-based Mo-99 production.
  • An agreement that in the meantime HEU-based production would be only be used for Russia and Russia’s existing customers, except for any requests by the United States or other states for emergency shipments of isotopes in the event of an interruption of supply from other sources.
  • Revenue from bulk sales to the US government would go to finance the conversion of the targets and later the fuel at the irradiator reactors, where technologically feasible.
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