COLUMBIA — A legislative maneuver by Missouri Sen. Kit Bond is keeping debate about expanded U.S. production of a cancer-detecting nuclear isotope on hold.
The state's senior senator, a Republican, has blocked Senate debate on the American Medical Isotope Production Act. The bill aims to increase domestic production of the isotopes used in medical tests, such as bone scans and cancer and heart disease screenings. The measure passed the House of Representatives 400-17.
The Columbia Daily Tribune reported Bond said the bill would decrease the global supply of medical isotopes by preventing the export of highly enriched uranium, a substance that is also a critical ingredient in nuclear weapons. No American nuclear reactors make the medical isotope known as moly-99.
A group of 19 physicians and scientists concerned with nuclear proliferation and the medical isotope shortage have asked Bond to drop his hold on the bill.
Five nuclear plants worldwide can produce the isotope — each outside the United States. Doctors and scientists warned of a shortage because of plant shutdowns and growing demand.
The bill would ban the export of highly enriched uranium starting seven years after the law took effect. Bond said that's too soon before U.S. research reactors could produce medical isotopes, meaning a reduction in the global supply. The ban is intended to persuade other nations to convert their plants to use low-enriched uranium, which cannot be used to make weapons.
"My primary concern is ensuring the millions of cancer patients get the cures they need," Bond said. "And this bill puts their treatment at risk."
Bond said the United States would need to convert three reactors by 2018 to satisfy domestic medical demand. Only one project is even close to meeting that time frame, he said.
The bill includes a provision to delay the ban on highly enriched uranium exports after seven years if a shortage of isotopes remains. And Congress could further delay the ban after 13 years.
Alan Kuperman, who coordinates the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Program at the University of Texas, said Bond's concerns "bear no resemblance to reality."
"I can see no realistic prospect that this legislation would hurt the U.S. supply of medical isotopes," he said.
A Bond spokeswoman said Thursday that the senator's opposition does not prevent federal administrators from accepting grant applications and awarding money to domestic labs interested in medical isotope production.
The MU's nuclear reactor was considered a top candidate to produce medical isotopes and announced a $40 million project less than two years ago to build a facility for that specific purpose.
But the university did not apply for federal grants made available this year through the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration that were designed specifically for isotope production. Two private companies received $11.25 million from the federal agency.
Kuperman said Missouri was not able to raise enough money from private investors to move the project forward. He estimated it would cost at least $150 million.
Missouri officials familiar with the project could not be reached for comment, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported.