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Developments in Washington Regarding Helium and Critical Isotopes

Richard M. Jones
Number 97 - July 6, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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Scientists and policymakers have become increasingly alarmed about current and projected shortages of critical materials such as Helium-3, energy-critical elements, and Molybdenum-99.  In the last two months, policymakers have moved on several fronts to alleviate projected shortages in helium, molybdenum-99, and other critical isotopes. 

Helium:

Thirteen senators have cosponsored S. 2374, the Helium Stewardship Act of 2012, introduced by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM).  In commenting on this bill at a May 10 hearing, Bingaman remarked that the 15-page bill would change the current legislatively-mandated management of the nation’s helium reserve in Amarillo, Texas.  Witnesses from the Bureau of Land Management and private industry generally supported the bill.  Senators also heard from a member of a National Research Council committee that prepared a report on the helium reserve.

In describing the bill, Bingaman stated:

“Helium is critical to a wide range of industrial, scientific and medical markets, including medical devices such as MRIs, industrial welding, high tech manufacturing of microchips and fiber optic cables, manufacturing of magnets for wind turbines, space exploration at NASA, and many other important scientific research activities that are conducted at laboratories around the country.
 
“The current sales and management structure for the helium reserve is distorting the private helium market and threatening helium supplies for Federal medical and scientific research and for private commercial applications. The low government sales price is also a barrier to developing private sources of helium.  More importantly, if Congress does not act, the helium program will disappear altogether in less than three years, leaving our hospitals, national labs, domestic manufacturers and helium producers without an adequate supply.
 
“This bipartisan bill addresses these issues by authorizing prudent helium sales and management beyond 2015 and securing private access to Federal supplies.  It also will allow for the continued repayment of the national debt by selling helium at fair market prices.  This will bolster the private helium sector and help to create long-term jobs in this industrial sector, and ensure the continued success of domestic manufacturers that use helium in their processes.
 
“Finally, S. 2374 will ensure secure access to helium for all of those who use it.  In particular, as the reserve is sold off, a 15-year supply of helium will be set aside exclusively for Federal researchers to guarantee continuity of our research programs as we transition to purely private sources of helium.”

The committee has not voted on this bill.

Molybdenum-99:

In June, the White House and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced six steps to encourage the production of Mo-99 in the United States without the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU). 

The supply of Mo-99 was seriously constrained following a temporary shutdown of a reactor in Ontario.  This reactor it is expected to discontinue isotope production after 2016.    Fifty thousand medical procedures are performed in the U.S. every day using this radioisotope.

The measures announced by the White House are regulatory and economic in nature and are intended to transition production of Mo-99 away from the use of HEU.  They include a voluntary unique code or other identifier for radiopharmaceuticals produced without HEU, federal preferential procurement, health insurance payment strategies, export controls, encouragement of domestic commercial full-cost-recovery production, and support to foreign Mo-99 producers.

NNSA is working with four domestic commercial interests to produce Mo-99 with low enriched uranium.  Mo-99 production facilities using low enriched uranium are found in Argentina, South Africa, Belgium, the Netherlands and Australia. 

Critical Isotopes Report:

Representatives Brad Miller (D-NC) and Paul Tonko (D-NY), senior members of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to review the Department of Energy’s Isotope Development and Production for Research and Applications program.  Transferred to the Office of Science in 2009, this program supplies more than 300 radioisotopes and stable isotopes to medical, commercial, research, and national security interests.   The program received $20 million in FY 2011 appropriations, and raised approximately $27 million in revenue from isotope sales. 

The May 23 title of this report, “DOE’s Isotope Program Needs Better Planning for Setting Prices and Managing Production Risks” aptly summarizes the findings of the 44-page report.  GAO cautioned that the program may not be receiving full revenue from its isotope sales, and made four recommendations to better identify and manage program risks, improve pricing, and implement management efficiencies.

Commenting on the report, Miller said “this report shows that the effective management of the department’s isotopes still has a long way to go.”  Tonko explained “I appreciate the fact that the DOE’s Isotope Program is beginning to engage in a strategic planning exercise but I don’t believe we can wait five years to act on some of the recommendations provided by GAO in this report. Future shortages may not be preventable or detectable before they occur, but implementing the GAO’s recommendations will help provide a more solid foundation for effectively managing the Isotope Program office.”    

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095