DOE prodded to back isotope supply

December 29, 1993

In a replay of a congressional hearing last year, the U.S. Departmentof Energy was taken to task this month for its failure to developa reliable U.S. supply of stable and radioactive isotopes. Unlikelast year, however, the DOE this time acknowledged the

In a replay of a congressional hearing last year, the U.S. Departmentof Energy was taken to task this month for its failure to developa reliable U.S. supply of stable and radioactive isotopes. Unlikelast year, however, the DOE this time acknowledged the isotopesupply problem and vowed to devote more energy to developing asolution.

The precarious nature of isotope availability has been acutelyfelt by nuclear medicine physicians. For example, over 90% ofnuclear medicine procedures use technetium-99m, which is producedusing molybdenum-99. A nuclear reactor in Canada is the only sourcein the Western Hemisphere for molybdenum-99, a fact that makesnuclear medicine advocates edgy.

The House of Representatives' subcommittee on environment,energy and natural resources, chaired by Rep. Michael Synar (D-OK),examined the isotope supply issue in a hearing Dec. 6. The hearingwas a follow-up to a similar review held last year (SCAN 8/26/92).

Since last year, the situation has barely improved:

  • DOE's isotope supply effort, the isotope productionand distribution (IP&D) program, continues to experience fundingproblems because of a federal requirement that it be self-supporting;

  • DOE's attempt to create a domestic supply of molybdenum-99at the Omega West reactor in Los Alamos, NM, has been derailedfor the past year by a leaking coolant pipe; and

  • The Canadian producer of molybdenum-99, Atomic Energyof Canada, Ltd. (AECL) has postponed plans to build a backup reactorbecause of a legal dispute with its distributor, Nordion International(SCAN 11/17/93).

DOE has long been accused of paying little attention to theproblems in isotope supply and was roundly criticized last yearfor maintaining that the IP&D program could continue operatingunder the cost recovery mandate.

At this year's hearing, however, DOE shifted gears. DOE deputysecretary William White acknowledged problems in the IP&Dprogram and vowed to take steps to remedy the situation. DOE wouldsupport legislation changing the program's cost recovery mandatein order to make the program more viable, White said.

"DOE admitted that the program wasn't working, it neededto be fixed, they were committed to fixing it and they would sendup legislation that would try to do that," a committee aidesaid. "Basically, they have changed their policy."

A sign that DOE was trying make a fresh start with the IP&Dprogram was its announcement that Donald Erb, the program's director,had been replaced. Owen Lowe has been named the IP&D's newdirector.

DOE also announced it would repair the Omega West reactor tocreate a backup supply of molybdenum-99. Prior to the hearing,DOE's commitment to the facility had been in question.

The subcommittee also discussed the dispute between Nordionand AECL and the status of Maple X, the backup reactor AECL isbuilding. The two are involved in litigation over the price Nordionpays for AECL isotopes, as well as whether AECL has a legal obligationto build the Maple X reactor.

A Nordion representative testifying at the hearing downplayedthe dispute and said it is likely to be resolved shortly. Workon the reactor has stopped until the dispute is worked out, however.

DOE now plans to begin looking at options for changing PublicLaw 101-101, the federal law that requires the IP&D programto recover all its costs from isotope sales. Whatever DOE does,its actions will be followed closely by Synar's committee, whichcan take much of the credit for getting DOE to act.

Personnel changes in DOE hierarchy after last year's presidentialelection are another major factor in DOE's change of heart. Clintonadministration appointees have been more amenable to governmentinvolvement in efforts like the IP&D program, the committeeaide said.

Meanwhile, some radiopharmacy companies are not waiting forDOE to resolve its problems. Mallinckrodt Medical is buildinga molybdenum-99 facility in the Netherlands to process raw molybdenumfrom European reactors. The facility will only have enough capacityto meet Mallinckrodt's needs, however.

About the only bright spot in the isotope availability situationis the National Biomedical Tracer Facility (NBTF) for accelerator-producedisotopes. DOE is taking applications for project definition studiesof the facility (SCAN 11/3/93).

Although the committee criticized DOE for the way the agencyhas handled the project definition phase, the agency at the hearingreaffirmed its support for the NBTF.

DOE still must determine whether the NBTF must recover costsunder the provisions of Public Law 101-101, according to DavidNichols, legislative coordinator for the American College of NuclearPhysicians and the Society of Nuclear Medicine. In the DOE's requestfor proposal for project definition studies, the agency did notindicate whether the facility will receive government funding.

"One of the requirements is to show that you can commerciallyoperate a facility like the NBTF," Nichols said. "Whenyou're producing research isotopes, it's almost impossible torecover costs. It's necessary for a some kind of government agencyto support this research and development just like they supportany other research and development."