US nuclear medicine suppliers welcome HEU export ban delay

The U.S. Energy Department’s planned ban for licensed exports of highly enriched uranium (HEU) for medical isotope production will be delayed for two years to give the nuclear medicine industry more time to develop adequate supplies of a less radioactive alternative.

The export ban of HEU was scheduled to take effect at the beginning of 2020 as part of the 2013 American Medical Isotopes Product Act, which required that an adequate domestic supply of less radioactive molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) be available for U.S. nuclear medicine purposes.

The Society of Nuclear Medicine and Medical Imaging (SNMMI) on Dec. 23 responded to the Energy Department National Nuclear Security Administration’s request for comments, stating that “there have been at least three times within the past two years where the Mo-99 supply was insufficient.”

The organization blamed the shortages on limited domestic producers of Mo-99.

“Although these shortages were not experienced throughout the entire country, they still resulted in the rescheduling or cancellation of many critical patient examinations or the substitution with a procedure that is less accurate than the nuclear medicine examination,” SNMMI said.

SNMMI told the Energy Department agency that currently less than 10% of the Mo-99 used in the U.S. is produced domestically. HEU is currently exported to overseas facilities to manufacture into Mo-99.

“The United States is therefore dependent on a worldwide network of reactors, where the Mo-99 is produced, and production facilities, where it is extracted from the irradiated targets,” SNMMI said. However, even these overseas suppliers of Mo-99 have faced numerous constraints to meet this new global demand, the organization said.

The Energy Department told Capitol Hill lawmakers in a letter that it will use its authority under the American Medical Isotopes Production Act to delay the HEU export ban for no more than two years, starting Jan. 2. The National Nuclear Security Administration’s notice of the export ban’s delay will be published in the Federal Register Tuesday.

“The two-year delay is a very positive development for patients whose care is facilitated by this important nuclear medicine isotope,” SNMMI said in a statement.

The Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, which is directed by University of Texas professor Alan J. Kuperman, argued in comments to Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette that there were sufficient supplies of Mo-99 from both domestic and foreign suppliers to stick with the planned Jan. 2 ban on HEU exports.

Three of the top overseas manufacturers of medical isotopes for the U.S. market — Curium (Netherlands), NTP (South Africa) and ANSTO (Australia) — no longer rely on HEU to make Mo-99, and within a year, the fourth producer, IRE of Belgium, is expected to complete a similar manufacturing shift, the group said.

The group warned that failure to stop U.S. exports of “weapons-grade” HEU “would both increase nuclear security risks and abet foreign companies to undercut the commercial viability of domestic U.S. producers of medical isotopes.”