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Hurdles Seen to New Curbs on Bomb-Grade Uranium

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

Workers prepare highly enriched uranium for removal from a Hungarian research reactor site in 2013. Political obstacles may stand in the way of any new multilateral effort to curb civilian uses of highly enriched uranium, according to a new analysis. Workers prepare highly enriched uranium for removal from a Hungarian research reactor site in 2013. Political obstacles may stand in the way of any new multilateral effort to curb civilian uses of highly enriched uranium, according to a new analysis. (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo)

Analysts warn that entrenched political obstacles may stand in the way of any new multilateral effort to curb nonmilitary uses of bomb-grade uranium.

World leaders have achieved a degree of success since 2010 in reducing the use of highly enriched uranium for civilian needs, such as fueling nuclear reactors and manufacturing medical isotopes, says a May analysis by Miles Pomper and Philippe Mauger of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

They argued, though, that dangers from the material persist. The authors said roughly 54 tons of highly enriched uranium is being used for peaceful purposes across 29 nations, and a U.N. estimate suggests a would-be nuclear terrorist may need to steal as little as 55 pounds to construct a bomb.

Participants in the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, Netherlands, issued a communique calling on countries to "minimize their stocks of HEU."

Still, that March statement was nonbinding, and Pomper and Mauger argued that more substantial efforts have been hampered by the differing goals of individual governments. The fourth, and possibly final, Nuclear Security Summit is scheduled for 2016 in the United States.

"With the end of the high-level summit process likely approaching in 2016, time is running out to set a clear objective that can muster sustained engagement from the full international community," the authors wrote. They pressed for participants in the upcoming gathering to make greater commitments, such as subjecting all nonmilitary highly enriched uranium to international inspections and ultimately ending all civilian use of the material.

"Further HEU stock minimization remains blocked by a few recalcitrant countries, and establishing broader legal principles on HEU management is proving to be difficult," they wrote in the Stanley Foundation assessment.

Belarus and South Africa have retained stocks of the material for political reasons, while Russia and Germany have resisted transparency initiatives over fears that new measures could "shed poor light" on their uranium holdings, the article says.

NTI Analysis

  • Give Nuclear Security a Chance

    March 19, 2014

    In a new Project Syndicate op-ed, NTI President Joan Rohlfing calls for leaders at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit to establish a global nuclear security system.