The United States will no longer export highly enriched uranium (HEU) to countries producing medical isotopes, marking a significant milestone in nonproliferation and nuclear security efforts.
The United States was shipping HEU periodically to certain countries that produce molybdenum-99, an isotope used in numerous medical procedures. But Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra jointly announced on Dec. 20 that there is sufficient production of molybdenum-99 without using HEU to meet U.S. needs. This certification triggered a congressionally mandated ban on U.S. exports of HEU for medical isotope production.
HEU poses a nuclear security and proliferation risk given that it can be used for nuclear weapons. Granholm described the certification as a “win-win” that makes the world safer and improves health care.
The Obama administration committed in 2012 to work with several key supplies of molybdenum-99—Belgium, France, and the Netherlands—to develop alternatives for producing the isotope using low-enriched uranium (LEU). As part of that agreement, the United States committed to supply HEU to the three states until they could complete the conversion to LEU alternatives. The commitment was made as part of the nuclear security summit process, a series of biannual summits from 2010 to 2016 that aimed to minimize the use of HEU in civilian programs to prevent nuclear terrorism.
In 2020 the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a license to export HEU to Belgium through December 2021. The commission noted at that time that Belgium should complete its conversion to use of LEU alternatives by mid-2022. Other major supplies of the medical isotope—the Netherlands, Australia, and South Africa—are already using LEU fuel sources for production.—KELSEY DAVENPORT