Q&A: Weapons Material Not a Must for Nuclear Medicine, Dutch Figure Says

President Barack Obama holds a joint press conference with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in The Hague on March 25 at the end of the Nuclear Security Summit. A key Dutch official said recently that the country is confident it will be able to uphold its end of a pledge that the Netherlands, United States and other countries made to limit the use of bomb-grade uranium in the production of medical isotopes.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
June 12, 2014, 10:44 a.m.

A Dutch of­fi­cial says he is con­fid­ent that the op­er­at­ors of a Neth­er­lands re­act­or are do­ing all they can to meet a goal of pro­du­cing ra­di­olo­gic­al iso­topes used in med­ic­al pro­ced­ures without the use of bomb-grade urani­um.

The Neth­er­lands — which hos­ted this year’s Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit — agreed at the pre­vi­ous gath­er­ing of world lead­ers in 2012 to work to­ward a goal of pro­du­cing med­ic­al iso­topes without highly en­riched urani­um by 2015. The United States, France and Bel­gi­um also agreed to col­lab­or­ate on the ob­ject­ive.

Un­der the deal, ob­serv­ers ex­pec­ted that Dutch pro­du­cer Mallink­rodt would switch to us­ing only low en­riched urani­um by 2015. Just weeks be­fore this year’s March sum­mit, a U.S. watch­dog group re­leased in­form­a­tion sug­gest­ing that the com­pany was not ex­pect­ing to meet that goal un­til at least 2017, however.

In­cluded in the re­lease was a let­ter that U.S. act­iv­ists wrote to Dutch gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials ur­ging them to per­suade Mallink­rodt to ac­cept U.S. fin­an­cial and tech­nic­al as­sist­ance in or­der to speed up the switch. Act­iv­ists have con­ten­ded that the com­pany di­ver­ted re­sources away from the con­ver­sion pro­ject in or­der to ad­dress re­act­or shut­downs and main­ten­ance is­sues, and that U.S. aid could help make up the dif­fer­ence.

Dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view, Kees Neder­lof, who served as deputy to the Neth­er­lands’ lead sum­mit or­gan­izer, down­played the role such as­sist­ance could play in speed­ing up the pro­cess.

“It’s not a mat­ter of money,” Neder­lof told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire and Arms Con­trol Today. “It’s a mat­ter of solv­ing tech­nic­al prob­lems. Of course that needs and it re­quires money but it’s not the most im­port­ant thing. Sug­ges­tions that gov­ern­ment aid would speed up this pro­cess, I think, are based on very little evid­ence.”

Neder­lof, who will take the lead role for the Dutch gov­ern­ment in the run-up to the 2016 sum­mit in the United States, said he was con­fid­ent Mallink­rodt was do­ing all that it can.

“Re­ports that they were lazy in do­ing such are ut­terly non­sense, really,” said Neder­lof, who serves as an ad­viser for stra­tegic af­fairs at the Dutch For­eign Min­istry. “We have been closely in­volved in what they are do­ing, and we have been kept in­formed about all the stages of the con­ver­sions, and we are ab­so­lutely con­vinced that they are do­ing whatever they need to.”

As for ex­actly when the con­ver­sion will be com­plete, Neder­lof said he could not of­fer any prom­ises. The goal is still 2015, he said, but he ac­know­ledged it may take longer.

“That’s for me very dif­fi­cult to say,” Neder­lof said in the in­ter­view, which took place at the Dutch em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton last month. “We can­not ex­clude that the pro­cess will take un­til 2017. I have to take that in­to ac­count. Who am I, from the gov­ern­ment, to cor­rect this es­tim­ate by a com­pany?”

The Dutch of­fi­cial stressed that en­sur­ing pa­tients throughout the world have ad­equate sup­plies of med­ic­al iso­topes is the pri­or­ity.

“You’re not go­ing to jeop­ard­ize pa­tients for a delay of one or two years,” Neder­lof said.

Ed­ited ex­cerpts of the in­ter­view, the second piece in a two-part series, ap­pear be­low:

GSN: The latest we heard was that the Dutch re­act­or that pro­duces med­ic­al iso­topes would likely not stop us­ing highly en­riched urani­um un­til at least 2017. Is that still the case or can that be sped up?

Neder­lof: [At the 2012 Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit] in Seoul, we stated that we will do our ut­most “¦ not only the Neth­er­lands, but also Bel­gi­um and France, to have things con­ver­ted in 2015. “¦ It’s still one and half years to go, but there are some tech­nic­al obstacles, tech­nic­al prob­lems that they are now well on their way to resolv­ing. Wheth­er that will res­ult in hav­ing con­ver­sion com­pleted be­fore the end of 2015 is a little bit too early to say.

Some people here in the U.S. “¦ were jump­ing to con­clu­sions. It’s really too early to say, that’s the first thing. The second is we’ve al­ways main­tained that the po­s­i­tion of the pa­tients all over the world who are de­pend­ent on these med­ic­al iso­topes is an ex­tremely im­port­ant part of this. “¦ You con­vert as much as pos­sible but, if there are tech­nic­al obstacles, you’re not go­ing to jeop­ard­ize pa­tients. “¦ That was al­ways in the joint state­ment made in Seoul.

GSN: The com­pany [Mallink­rodt] said that be­cause of the obstacles, the switch might not be com­plete un­til 2017, but you think there is still a chance it could hap­pen by 2015?

Neder­lof: That’s for me very dif­fi­cult to say. “¦ We can­not ex­clude that the pro­cess will take un­til 2017. I have to take that in­to ac­count. Who am I, from the gov­ern­ment, to cor­rect this es­tim­ate by a com­pany? “¦ But once again, the po­s­i­tion of pa­tients world­wide is very cent­ral. You’re not go­ing to jeop­ard­ize pa­tients for a delay of one or two years. “¦

In 2016, the Ca­na­dians will stop pro­du­cing — there will be a huge short­age. It would be very un­pleas­ant for the world com­munity if all of the sud­den the sup­ply of med­ic­al iso­topes was stopped.

GSN: Do you have con­fid­ence that the com­pany is do­ing all it can to make this hap­pen as soon as pos­sible?

Neder­lof: Ab­so­lutely. Re­ports that they were lazy in do­ing such are ut­terly non­sense, really. We have been closely in­volved in what they are do­ing, and we have been kept in­formed about all the stages of the con­ver­sions, and we are ab­so­lutely con­vinced that they are do­ing whatever they need to. “¦

It’s not a mat­ter of money. It’s a mat­ter of solv­ing tech­nic­al prob­lems. Of course that needs and it re­quires money but it’s not the most im­port­ant thing. Sug­ges­tions that gov­ern­ment aid would speed up this pro­cess, I think, are based on very little evid­ence.

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