June 20, 2005,
Frightened by a purported shortage of life-saving medical isotopes, American doctors are lobbying to lift restrictions on the export of bomb-grade uranium to foreign companies that produce pharmaceuticals for our hospitals. They have gotten their amendment approved by the U.S. House of Representatives and a Senate committee in the pending energy bill, and await only action by the full Senate this month. Although well-intentioned, the doctors are misguided. Their measure is unnecessary and dangerous because there is no impending shortage of such isotopes. Rather, the main effects of their legislation would be to enrich a few manufacturers while increasing the risk of nuclear terrorism for the rest of us. The Senate must say no by voting for an amendment by Senators Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.) and Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) to strike the dangerous provision from the bill.
The root of the problem is that highly enriched uranium has two uses. It can be put to civilian ends such as producing isotopes, or it can be put into a Hiroshima-type bomb. As a result, the United States has phased out exports of bomb-grade uranium for 30 years, replacing them with safer, low-enriched uranium that cannot be made into a bomb but can fulfill the civilian role. The policy was codified in a 1992 law that blocks exports of bomb-grade uranium to civilian users unless they are actively converting to the safer alternative. Dozens of research reactors and a few isotope manufacturers have already converted at little if any penalty in performance, thereby substantially reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism.
The greatest obstacles to this antiterrorism policy are a handful of foreign isotope manufacturers who supply the American medical market because there is no significant domestic producer. The foreign firms resist the one-time inconvenience and expense of converting their manufacturing processes to produce the safer uranium. Instead, they have tried to gut U.S. export restrictions by scaring doctors into believing that otherwise there will be an interruption in isotope supplies.
It is perhaps understandable, if disappointing, that foreign companies favor their bottom line over the security of the American public. But it is unacceptable for them to use false scare tactics to push their agenda. Congress and the American medical community should stop falling for it and bring these companies to task.
The biggest culprit is the Canadian isotope producer Nordion, which supplies the bulk of the American market, demands the most bomb-grade uranium, persistently defies U.S. conversion requirements, and is the main force behind the legislation to weaken them. As long ago as 1990, the Canadians promised the United States that they would “phase out highly enriched uranium use by 2000.” Instead, they constructed new facilities designed explicitly to use this most dangerous type of uranium for the next 30 years, making it harder to convert to the safer variety. Nordion even refused U.S. offers of technical assistance to facilitate conversion, on grounds that since the company was not going to convert anyway, there was no reason to figure out how to do it.
But U.S. law requires foreign companies to actively work toward converting to low-enriched uranium as a condition of receiving bomb-grade-uranium exports in the interim. Accordingly, Nordion’s recalcitrance put in doubt the long-term operation of its soon-to-open facility. All by itself, Nordion could assure a steady supply of uranium to produce isotopes at the new plant simply by cooperating with the United States to convert it expeditiously.
Alan J. Kuperman is assistant professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin, and a senior policy analyst for the Nuclear Control Institute.