Tumors, Tariffs, and Terrorism
According to the Kansas City Star, Sen. Kit Bond has been trying to stop the passage of the American Medical Isotopes Production Act, a bill that aims to halt U.S. export of highly enriched uranium (HEU). The HEU is currently mined in the United States, and is then transported to Canada and other countries, where it is used to create medical isotopes useful for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and many other diseases. Sponsors of the Isotopes Production Act intend for it to end U.S. reliance on foreign sources of medical isotopes by setting up facilities on American soil that are capable of making the isotopes. Another goal is to make it more difficult for HEU to be stolen, because it could hypothetically be used to create bombs.
The controversy surrounding this act raises two questions. First, how can we create more reliable sources for medical supplies that are difficult to produce? Both economic theory and our own history of imports and exports make it obvious that tariffs and bans on trade disproportionately harm the country that refuses to trade with others. Domestic production of medical isotopes would require massive government subsidies in order to upgrade nuclear reactors, such as the one owned by the University of Missouri for research purposes. Cutting off outside supplies of the isotopes, which is the intended purpose of the act, would drastically reduce efficiency in the production of medical isotopes and decrease the welfare of patients who need regular treatments with them. Although other countries are capable of making this product at present, and we are not, supporters of the act suggest that closing our doors to our current suppliers of medical isotopes would result in a more reliable supply.
The second question raised by the Isotope Production Act is more emotionally charged. What if terrorists get hold of the HEU and use it to construct bombs? Often, when fear is highlighted in a policy issue, it is used to distract voters from facts. Whether dealing with phone calls, airport security, or ingredients that could potentially be used to create weapons, it is important not to become so carried away by suspicion that we sabotage ourselves in other ways. Cancer and terrorism are both scary, but isotope technology can do something about cancer. Restricting it so severely, on the other hand, won’t put a dent in the many readily available materials that can be used to hurt people. The real market for medicines is too important to allow paranoia to dictate supply and demand.