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Fissile Material Ban Should Include Civilian HEU, Experts Say

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

(Mar. 30) -The High Flux Australian Reactor, now retired, was converted under a U.S.-led initiative to run on low-enriched uranium rather than weapon-grade material. International efforts to cut off the production of new fissile material stocks must address civilian supplies of highly enriched uranium in order to be effective, according to analysts (Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization photo). (Mar. 30) -The High Flux Australian Reactor, now retired, was converted under a U.S.-led initiative to run on low-enriched uranium rather than weapon-grade material. International efforts to cut off the production of new fissile material stocks must address civilian supplies of highly enriched uranium in order to be effective, according to analysts (Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization photo).

WASHINGTON -- The influence of a long-hoped-for international agreement to ban the production of new fissile material for nuclear weapons would be undermined if the global community does not also commit to phasing out the use of highly enriched uranium in other sectors, experts say (see GSN, Dec. 14, 2009).

The potential for such a pact to come into existence remains in question, 17 years after the U.N. Security Council called for consideration of a "nondiscriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices."

The 65-nation, U.N.-backed Conference on Disarmament agreed last year to a work plan that included beginning talks on the pact. Progress stalled amid objections from nuclear-armed Pakistan, which is reluctant to accept any measures that might alter its strategic balance with rival India, and the momentum does not appear to have been recaptured yet this year (see GSN, Feb. 12).

If and when serious fissile material treaty talks begin, they are only expected to cover military nuclear stocks intended for use in strategic weapons under the basis of the 1995 Shannon Mandate. That would fail to address the status of material that is generally less secured than military plutonium and uranium -- and thus at greater risk for acquisition by terrorists, experts argued.

The threats of nuclear terrorism and proliferation would not be fully addressed by an agreement that leaves open the production of highly enriched uranium for use in civilian research reactors and for fuel in naval ships, the experts said.

They also warned that the goal of any fissile material cutoff treaty -- pressing toward global nuclear disarmament -- would be undercut if nations retained the ability to stockpile highly enriched uranium for civilian research reactors or naval propulsion that could, in a moment of crisis, be co-opted for weapons.

"This stuff is fungible and so countries can say 'We're not going to produce fissile material for weapons but we’re going to stockpile fissile material for civilian uses' and then five years down the road -- zoom the stuff switches from one category to the other," said Alan Kuperman, director of the University of Texas at Austin’s Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Program.

Miles Pomper, a research associate with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, took a similar view: "If you're going to get to a disarmed world, you would need this ban on HEU as one more barrier against states reconstituting weapons. As long as they can produce HEU, if they still have the capability to produce it, that's going to produce concerns."

Not everyone, though, agreed that the time is ripe to expand the focus beyond weapons uses of fissile material.

"I don't know whether trying to add [civilian and non-weapon HEU use] to the FMCT agenda right now is in fact the most effective way to go, especially as the FMCT is not moving forward," said Princeton University nuclear physicist Frank von Hippel, co-chairman of the International Panel on Fissile Materials. "If we had a forum where we were actually talking about these things then I think it would be worth talking about."

Dangers

Experts are primarily concerned with highly enriched uranium as it could most feasibly be used to create a crude nuclear bomb, which terrorists are thought to have a greater chance of acquiring than an actual nuclear warhead.

"Very, very unfortunately, it is easiest to make a nuclear weapon from highly enriched uranium,” Kuperman told Global Security Newswire.

Highly enriched uranium as it is commonly used for naval propulsion and in research reactors has an identical enrichment level to that used in nuclear weapons -- 93.3 percent.

Roughly 760 metric tons of the estimated global HEU stockpile of 1,670 metric tons is not designated for weapons use. The vast majority of that material is held by former Cold War rivals Russia and the United States, according to a 2008 report from the International Panel on Fissile Materials.

Russia holds between 15 and 30 metric tons of civilian sector highly enriched uranium while the United States possesses 30 metric tons of the material, according to the report.

There are 34 nations today with HEU stockpiles, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Nonweapons highly enriched uranium encompasses material that is used for naval propulsion, excess fissile material intended to be converted to low-grade uranium, and civilian HEU stocks used in research reactors and to create medical isotopes.

Annual worldwide civilian HEU use is estimated to be nearly 8,600 pounds -- enough to make nearly 160 nuclear weapons. Naval propulsion consumes 6,830 pounds, followed by research reactors with 1,650 pounds and medical isotope production with 100 pounds, according to statistics provided by Pomper.

The HEU amounts exported abroad today come from old Russian and U.S. government stockpiles. The two nations are no longer producing new quantities of highly enriched uranium, according to Kuperman.

The United States began providing bomb-grade uranium to its allies in the 1950s and for many years its export was treated as a routine civilian trade matter -- a policy Kuperman called "one of the dumbest decisions."

"We were exporting hundreds and hundreds of bombs worth of HEU," he said at a February panel discussion put on by the James Martin Center and the Norwegian Embassy in Washington.

After peaking in the 1960s at about 6,610 pounds yearly, U.S. exports of highly enriched uranium have fallen drastically, with less than 110 pounds sent abroad annually in recent years (see GSN, Jan. 6).

Attempts to Reduce HEU Use

In the wake of heightened nuclear terrorism fears following the Sept. 11 attacks, a significant international push is now under way to end the use of highly enriched uranium in nuclear research reactors. However, the process is both costly and time-intensive, Kuperman said.

Pomper estimated that there are 130 research reactors left in the world that authorities would like to see changed over to run on proliferation-resistant low-enriched uranium.

Washington has spearheaded the conversion movement, establishing the Global Threat Reduction Initiative in 2004 to convert reactors across the globe to run on low-enriched uranium. It now spends $50 million to $70 million annually on the work.

"What you saw was just an increase in the resources that were being devoted to this by the U.S. by at least an order of magnitude," Kuperman said.

Funding levels for domestic and international reactor conversion are expected to continue to increase. The Obama administration is seeking $199 million in fiscal 2011 for reactor conversion, according to the Energy Department’s budget request.

That figure stands in stark contrast to the cumulative $149 million that Washington spent from 1978 to 2003 on conversion efforts in the United States and in Russia and in third-party nations with Russian- and U.S. supplied reactors, according to a 2004 Government Accountability Office report.

As part of the GTRI program, the Obama administration expects to convert or authenticate as shuttered another seven HEU reactors in fiscal 2011, including plants in China and Poland, according to the Energy Department budget request. That would bring the cumulative total number of reactors converted since the 1970s to 78.

Meanwhile, the results of Washington's stepped-up domestic efforts, according to Kuperman, are that today all but three U.S. research reactors licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have been converted to run on low-enriched uranium or shut down. Three separate Energy Department reactors are also set to be converted to run on LEU material.

"Now the U.S. can go to the rest of the world and say 'Hey we practice what we preach,'" he said.

More than 50 Russian nonmilitary facilities still use highly enriched uranium. Though Moscow has moved to convert research reactors it built abroad during the Soviet-era to run on LEU fuel, the Kremlin has not adopted a policy to reduce the domestic nonmilitary use of the weapon-grade material, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

As reactors cannot be converted overnight, a short-term strategy to reduce the likelihood of terrorists getting their hands on bomb-grade material would be to consolidate civilian sector highly enriched uranium and the equipment and laboratories that use it into fewer, more secure locations, Pomper said.

This is complicated, however, in Russia by the politics and economics surrounding the issue, experts said.

"Russia's hesitancy appears linked to the potential cost of reactor conversion and the lack of an overarching plan for the future of Russia's research reactor fleet, the perception that the threat of terrorists acquiring HEU for the purpose of fabricating an improvised nuclear device is not very high, and the belief that HEU fuel provides advantages to researchers," according to an NTI summary of the situation.

"In Russia, it’s really a social issue. If you’ve got HEU, it kind of keeps you open for business," Pomper told GSN. "There is prestige associated with it and concerns that jobs will be eliminated if labs are consolidated."

A commitment by Moscow several years ago to centralize its HEU laboratories has been postponed as a result of economic concerns, he said.

Policy Concerns

Though medical isotope production requires much smaller amounts of fissile material than that used in research reactors, the reliance on highly enriched uranium in this sector is still troubling to nonproliferation experts.

The 2005 U.S. Energy Policy Act eliminated restrictions put in place on the sale of the fissile material for medical isotope production by the 1992 Energy Policy Act, said Pomper at a Feb. 17 presentation at the "Nuclear Deterrence Summit" sponsored by Exchange Monitor Publications and Forums.

Under the old bill, Congress mandated that highly enriched uranium could only be exported for fuel or target production to countries that pledged to convert their reactors to run on low-enriched uranium fuel once it became available.

Highly enriched uranium can now be sold to five European countries to produce medical isotopes without a commitment to eventually convert their reactors to run on LEU fuel. As a result, Pomper said, exports of the material to Europe are expected to increase.

There is, however, a growing awareness that highly enriched uranium is not required for the production of medical isotopes. A 2009 National Academies study found that there were "no technical reasons that adequate quantities cannot be produced from LEU targets in the future."

The study recommended the phasing out of highly enriched uranium over the next seven to 10 years. That period "would likely allow enough time for all current HEU-based producers to convert" and "would have a negligible impact on the cost of common diagnostic imaging procedures," the study found.

The 2009 American Medical Isotopes Production Act would take up the recommendations of the study by seeking to halt the export of highly enriched uranium for medical isotope production. It also would provide $163 million over five years to research domestic isotope production that does not require usage of the material. The bill was overwhelmingly approved by the House of Representatives and is now awaiting consideration in the Senate.

However, a unilateral move by Washington to end exports of highly enriched uranium could end up making the situation worse, said Kuperman, who suggested that foreign isotope producers could instead turn to Russia for their new purchases of fissile material or might try reprocessing spent targets to recycle the depleted uranium.

Both of these possibilities carry with them heightened security risks, he said. Reprocessing technology can be used to produce weapon-grade nuclear material, and if the HEU market simply shifts elsewhere then Washington would no longer be able to demand controls and safeguards on exports.

"For me the big issue right now is Russia because Russia has not gotten fully on board with the agenda of phasing out HEU use for research reactors," von Hippel said.

Naval Fuel Problematic

Highly enriched uranium also remains widely in use by navies, with U.S. forces alone requiring roughly 4,190 pounds annually, according to Pomper.

The United States has 11 nuclear-fueled aircraft carriers and nine cruisers. There are an estimated 150 nuclear-powered vessels in operation today around the world, including 120 submarines, according to the World Nuclear Association.

Von Hippel asserted that converting naval reactors to run on LEU fuel is an even bigger issue than civilian use of highly enriched uranium for medical isotope production.

A naval reactor changeover would cover "both the issues of new production of [bomb-grade material] and the issue of stockpiling" non-weapons fissile material that could potentially be reassigned for weapons production, he told GSN.

Von Hippel said he has tried to build congressional support for a proposal to have the National Academy of Science undertake a cost benefit analysis on converting old naval reactors to run on low-enriched uranium and designing new reactors to do the same.

"So far I haven't been able to get anybody who has that clout in Congress to [appropriate] the $2 million that would be required to fund such a study," he said.

An internal 1995 study by the U.S. Navy found that it was feasible to convert all reactors to run on the lower-grade fuel, according to von Hippel. To do so, however, would cost a great deal of money and the service "didn't see any point in doing it."

Pomper also said he supports Washington and Moscow pursuing independent studies that would examine what other fuels could be used in naval surface ships. The issue could be brought up at President Barack Obama's nuclear security summit next month in Washington, he suggested.

Whatever actions Washington takes to phase out nonweapons HEU use, experts agreed that the steps should be made within a broad multilateral framework.

"To shut down the whole thing, you need everyone to stop. It's a global commons problem," Pomper said.

A fissile material cutoff treaty is "great," Kuperman said, "but it doesn’t make a lot of sense to cut it off for weapons but to continue it for nonweapons purposes."

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The Nuclear Threat Initiative is the sole sponsor of Global Security Newswire, which is published independently by the National Journal Group.]

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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