President George W. Bush signed legislation into law Aug. 8 relaxing limits on the export of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Although some U.S. officials support the change as critical to nuclear medicine, a bipartisan group of senators has charged that the modification will make it easier for terrorists to obtain fissile material for nuclear weapons. HEU is one of two materials that can provide the fissile material in nuclear weapons; plutonium is the other.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who first proposed the change in 2003, contends that loosening U.S. restrictions on HEU exports is the only way to ensure that foreign producers of medical isotopes have a stable supply of uranium, which they use to make radiopharmaceuticals that help diagnose and treat conditions such as heart disease and cancer.
The bill alters a 1992 amendment to the 1954 Atomic Energy Act dubbed the “Schumer Amendment,” after its chief sponsor, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). The amendment sought to encourage firms to switch to less dangerous low-enriched uranium (LEU). The Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory has determined that LEU is an acceptable replacement for HEU in nuclear medicine, but some companies are reluctant to make the costly switch.
During Senate debate Schumer argued that relaxing export regulations will increase the amount of weapons-grade uranium worldwide. Together with Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Schumer also maintained that prior restrictions on HEU exports have not impeded the supply of medical isotopes. The senators noted that countries such as Argentina and the Netherlands have already opted to substitute LEU for HEU.
Schumer and Kyl prevailed 52-46 on a Senate vote to retain the Schumer amendment, but Burr’s amendment was approved by a House-Senate conference committee and endorsed by both chambers in late July.