But many supporters of the bill, including representatives of the NNSA, dispute Bond's assertion, and add that they are puzzled by his objection.
“We've refuted statements made by Bond in that letter, and the National Nuclear Security Administration supports the bill,” says a spokesman for Markey's office who agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity. “This doesn't seem to be a reality-based objection.”
A spokesman for the NNSA said the agency was unable to comment on the debate over the bill as its leading medical isotope expert, Parrish Staples, director of the Office of European and African Threat Reduction, was traveling and unreachable. But during a Sept. 9, 2009 hearing on the isotopes bill at the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Energy and Environment Subcommittee, Staples voiced the NNSA's support of the bill.
He noted, for example, that the National Academies had determined that there are “no technical reasons that adequate quantities (of medical isotopes) cannot be produced” without HEU. “We agree with the language of the proposed legislation, which makes clear that the U.S. should accelerate its efforts to convert HEU research reactors worldwide from the use of HEU,” Staples told lawmakers.
Some proponents of the isotopes bill suggest that Bond's reasons for stalling the legislation may have another motivation: That he could be hoping to provide officials at the University of Missouri's research reactor time to pull together resources to compete for a portion of the bill's funding.
When the isotope production bill was unveiled in 2009, many expected that the University of Missouri research reactor would compete for the funds allocated to transform an existing nuclear facility into a LEU processing center. But according to Atcher, who says he has had conversations with officials at the reactor, the university's leadership determined that the bill's matching-funds requirement made the venture too expensive and financially risky.
“In my discussion with the leadership there, they said they couldn't justify in the current economic atmosphere putting up $8 million for the first phase of the project when there's no guarantee they'd make it to the second phase,” says Atcher, who adds that university officials thus far have been unsuccessful in finding an investment partner willing to put up early-stage funding, let alone someone willing to pony up $50 million of the estimated $100 million it would cost to complete construction and technology changes on the reactor.
“They don't know if they'd make a transition from the first level of design and regulatory activity,” Atcher says, “and they aren't going to put university funds at risk.”
A spokesman for the Missouri research reactor says the university's policy is not to comment on pending legislation, but Atcher and others close to the issue say University of Missouri officials have expressed their support of the legislation both publicly and directly to Bond.
“My understanding is that they have spoken with Bond and reinforced that they are supportive of this regardless of whether” they can compete for the funding.
Passage of the isotopes production legislation is the most expedient way of spurring innovation and creating a U.S.-based medical isotopes industry, experts say. But the Energy Department has been able to fund a few new technology projects even without support of the bill. They include projects by GE Hitachi and a joint venture between medical-products manufacturer Covidien Healthcare and the energy-technology company Babcock & Wilcox Co.
The department provided GE Hitachi with 50% of a $4.5 million investment covering conceptual development and testing of a new technology that would use existing U.S.-based nuclear reactors to irradiate metal with naturally occurring forms of molybdenum instead of uranium to create molybdenum-99. The molybdenum-99 would then be placed into a generator that processes it into technetium-99.
Chris Monetta, senior vice president of GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy's advanced fuel cycle program, says one advantage of the new manufacturing technology is that it would create less hazardous chemical waste than current medical isotope manufacturing methods.
Covidien and Babcock & Wilcox have received Energy Department funding for an alternative isotope processing technology that would use a liquid solution to extract molybdenum-99 from LEU. The process would generate only about 1% of the radioactive waste currently created by processing HEU to create medical isotopes, according to Covidien officials. The technology also has the potential to supply roughly 50% of the medical isotopes used annually in the U.S., says Covidien spokesman Stephen Littlejohn.