Mo-99 in Short Supply, US Delays Ban on Highly Enriched Uranium

Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) is in short supply, and the US has delayed the export ban on highly enriched uranium (HEU). According to Reuters, the US Department of Energy (DOE) recently waived a two-year ban on licenses for the export of weapons-grade uranium for making medical isotopes. Opponents point out that this would raise proliferation risks and undermine companies that are converting to safer materials.

The ban on weapons-grade uranium export licenses issued by the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) should have come into effect on January 3. But U.S. Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said in a letter to the top members of the U.S. House of Representatives energy committee that his department had determined that global supplies of a substance made non-HEU-based Mo-99, that is used to make medical isotopes were not sufficient to meet the needs of U.S. patients, the ban on weapons-grade uranium export licenses will be postponed for two years.

US delays ban on licenses for bomb-grade uranium exports image

Radioisotopes are used in a variety of medical applications, such as imaging, diagnostics, and cancer treatment. Technetium 99m (Tc-99m) is the most commonly used radionuclide in the field of diagnostic imaging, a noninvasive method intended to diagnose a disease, assess the disease state and monitor the effects of treatments. Annually, Tc-99m needs to be used more than 30 million times a year. But its half-life is only 6 hours, and the hospital cannot store it. Therefore, Tc-99m is usually supplied to hospitals through a Mo-99/Tc-99m radionuclide generator system.

Approximately 40,000 patients use Mo-99 every day in the United States. On January 17, 2018, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced that multinational healthcare company Curium has completed the production process of molybdenum 99 from highly enriched uranium. The conversion of the target to a low enriched uranium (LEU) target is an important milestone for the country to end the production of Mo-99 in highly enriched uranium worldwide.

Belgium's Institute for Radioelements, or IRE said it hopes to use high-enriched uranium to make medical isotopes. HEU could produce more molybdenum than LEU.

Nuclear nonproliferation experts said that although the IRE Institute asked for in a recent request is less than 5 kg of highly enriched uranium. But no matter how much it is, exporting HEU must be risky, and there are options to replace HEU. The more of this material out there in circulation, the more dangerous it is.

Alan Kuperman, a University of Texas professor and founding coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, said that the U.S. Energy Department's opening of highly enriched uranium exports undermines companies' converting to low enriched uranium, a material that does not pose proliferation risks, and startups that are making the medical materials without HEU. The move is irresponsible and unnecessary, and the DOE was hurting US policy. The National Nuclear Security Administration, part of DOE, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.