Sheldon Alberts, Washington Correspondent, Canwest News ServicePublished: Friday, July 10, 2009
WASHINGTON - A Senate committee on Friday approved $20 million U.S. in spending to allow the United States to begin domestic production of medical isotopes, a response to global supply shortages being caused by the shutdown of Canada's nuclear reactor at Chalk River, Ont.
The money is included in a $34-billion Senate appropriations bill for fiscal year 2010. It marks the first proposed commitment of U.S. government funds to meet American demand for Molybdenum-99, the radioisotope used in medical imaging and cancer diagnosis.
Until its shutdown, Ontario's Chalk River reactor was the world's largest producer of medical isotopes.The committee recognizes the shortfall in supplies of isotope Molybdenum-99 for the use in medical treatments, and provides $20,000,000 to advance the creation of a domestic supply of this isotope," the legislation says.
The effort by U.S. lawmakers to jump-start U.S. production follows signals from the Obama administration earlier this week that it will need up to $120 million over four years to fund the project.
"It's certainly gratifying, because it is exactly the kind of action we were asking for," said Alan Kuperman, director of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Program at the University of Texas in Austin.
Kuperman was among a group of American medical and non-proliferation experts who last month wrote Congress. urging them to speed ahead with U.S. production of medical isotopes in response to the May 15 shutdown of the aging NRU reactor at Chalk River, which is the world's largest isotope producer.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in June it's likely Canada will "get out of the business" of supplying isotopes by 2016 - and U.S. production could make that plan a certainty.
Even before a leak of heavy water forced the Chalk River reactor shutdown, the U.S. government had been eyeing the possibility of developing its own isotope production, using low-enriched uranium. Isotopes are produced from bomb-grade uranium at Chalk River.
The likeliest candidates for U.S. production facilities include one at the University of Missouri, and another proposed in Virginia by the private firm, Babcock & Wilcox.
"The recent supply interruptions (in Canada) have really accelerated that process and given it the political momentum," Kuperman said.
In a presentation to the National Academies this week, an official from the National Nuclear Security Administration said the U.S. - which gets about 60 per cent of its isotopes from Canada - was facing a "supply crisis" because of the Chalk River closure.
It was initially estimated that the NRU reactor would be closed only for three months, but Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. this week said repairs could take until late 2009.
Separate from the funding proposed by the U.S. Senate, a House of Representatives committee is reportedly recommending $12 million in first-year funding for isotope production. The two pieces of legislation will need to be reconciled before final approval of the isotope production funding.
"Regardless of what the amount ends up being, the most important thing is that the House, Senate and the Obama administration have expressed support for this," Kuperman said.
While the U.S. is spending cash to figure out a solution to the isotope-supply crisis, the Canadian government is waiting to hear from a three-person expert panel. That panel, appointed last month, will report to Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt this fall, and has been asked by the government to suggest what paths Ottawa could take to secure a reliable, long-term supply of medical isotopes.
The federal government did give Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. an additional $351 million in this year's budget, some of which was to be used to upgrade the facilities at its Chalk River Laboratories.
That money was allocated before the NRU broke down, and no new money has so far been designated for new isotope production.
McMaster University officials told a House of Commons committee last month that a research reactor at the Hamilton university could be producing all the medical isotopes Canada needs - and then some - in as little as 18 months.
But the reactor's manager, Christopher Heysel, said a speedy transformation of the McMaster reactor from a multi-purpose research machine to a high-volume isotope producer needs co-operation of other "stakeholders," including AECL, the federal government, and the nuclear-safety regulator. The transformation would be relatively cheap, as well, costing the federal government just $30 million over five years, Heysel said.
With files from David Akin