Position Paper





Alan J. Kuperman

Paul L. Leventhal

Nuclear Control Institute*


Panel on Converting Medical Isotope Production


23rd International Conference on

Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors

Las Vegas, Nevada

October 2, 2000


n      There is a long-standing international consensus to phase out civilian commerce in HEU to reduce risks of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism.


n      Even though isotope production was not originally part of INFCE and RERTR, the prevailing international consensus to phase out civil HEU commerce should extend to isotope production, especially because isotope production accounts for an increasing share of total HEU commerce.  Thus, there will be increasing public pressure on producers to convert and, for those who refuse to convert, decreasing availability of HEU supplies, which could interrupt production of vital medical isotopes.


n      The best way to ensure the uninterrupted supply of medical isotopes is to convert to LEU.


n      There are one-time costs associated with conversion, and possibly marginal increases in operating costs as well.  Thus, each individual producer is more likely to convert if all others do, so that no operator can benefit from any significant comparative advantage by avoiding conversion and continuing to use HEU.


n      Not all producers will be affected symmetrically by conversion.  The increase in costs could be greater for some than for others, depending on the extent of modifications necessary to accommodate LEU targets.  Some producers will be able to modify existing facilities, while others may have to build additional components.  However, as Nordion learned when it recently prepared its conversion feasibility study,[1] many early fears about the burdens of conversion to LEU can be resolved by small adjustments to process chemistry and equipment.  Although the U-238 mass associated with LEU targets is substantially greater, this need not significantly increase liquid flow volume or necessitate other major modifications to process lines.  The only unavoidable consequence appears to be that the mass of uranium in waste will increase.


n      Rather than discussing generally the obstacles to and costs of conversion, it would be immensely helpful if  every producer prepared a concrete study on the feasibility of converting its facility to LEU targets.  Many producers are likely to find, as Nordion did, that the required modifications are relatively minor.


n      If an individual producer has a unique situation whereby conversion would substantially increase costs and/or interrupt production, discussions should commence on how assistance could be provided to facilitate conversion.  Such assistance could include technical support from Argonne, lengthening a producer’s conversion schedule, and possibly even financial support from host governments in the name of supporting an important non-proliferation objective.  For less developed countries, foreign financial assistance could be made available, again on non-proliferation grounds.


n      Although costs of conversion should be relatively small, there likely will be some increase in the cost of producing isotopes for most producers.  The pharmaceutical companies who are the immediate customers for medical isotopes should be brought into the process and informed that production costs will increase marginally due to conversion to LEU in order to ensure stability of supply and to implement non-proliferation policy.  Most likely, these customers will be willing to absorb a small increase in price in order to ensure reliability of supply.  They have done this in the past, for example when Nordion needed to increase prices (reportedly by 40%) in order to help fund its new Maple reactors and new processing facility to ensure stability of supply.


n      The two most significant outcomes of this meeting would be---


(1) for all producers to embrace the principle of the RERTR program – the phasing out of civilian commerce in HEU – by stating explicitly that this principle applies equally to targets for isotope production as it has to fuel for research reactors.  This could best be accomplished by signing a joint declaration to be drafted by the isotope producers.  (NCI presented a model of such a declaration at last year’s RERTR meeting.[2]); and


(2) for each producer to commit to prepare over the next year a feasibility study on converting its isotope production to LEU targets.  Technical assistance, if necessary, should be provided by Argonne National Laboratory.


n      A follow-up meeting could be held at next year’s RERTR conference to compare the findings of these studies, and to work to overcome any remaining obstacles to universal conversion of isotope production to LEU targets.


n      By phasing out reliance on bomb-grade uranium targets, producers of medical isotopes would be able to take pride in making the world not only a healthier place, but a safer one as well.



* Alan J. Kuperman is Senior Policy Analyst (kuperman@mit.edu) and Paul L. Leventhal is President (pleventhal@aol.com,) of the Nuclear Control Institute, Washington, D.C. (mail@nci.org.).


[1]  This study was required by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission as a condition of Nordion’s license to export HEU from the United States on an interim basis prior to conversion.  The NRC imposed this condition to implement requirements of the Schumer Amendment to the Energy Policy Act of 1992.


[2]   Alan J. Kuperman, “A Level Playing Field for Medical Isotope Production---How to Phase Out Reliance on HEU,” October 7, 1999, Budapest.  (See draft Statement of Intent, at end.) (www.nci.org/q-r/rertr99.htm)