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Nuclear Arms Goals Motivate Uranium Refinement Support Plan

The Obama administration on Wednesday announced it would take custody of key assets from a domestic uranium refinement project's financially troubled operator in a move officials deemed crucial for sustaining the nation's nuclear arsenal, the New York Times reported (see GSN, June 12, 2007).

The arrangement calls for the Energy Department to assume responsibility for unusable uranium generated by the enrichment company USEC, freeing up $88 million for the firm. In exchange, the government would take possession of uranium enrichment machines at the American Centrifuge Plant in Ohio (Matthew Wald, New York Times, June 13).

“Under the new agreement, we will be able to move forward with this critical research, development and demonstration effort while ensuring strong protections for the American taxpayers," Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a press release.

The facility is presently the sole "national initiative to establish an advanced domestic enrichment capability based on U.S.-origin technology," according to the statement. The department deemed the effort a necessity for national security priorities such as augmenting the generation of tritium, a hydrogen isotope critical in boosting the explosive power of U.S. nuclear weapons (U.S. Energy Department release, June 13).

The assistance came in advance of the plan's presumed congressional endorsement, the Times reported. Legislators would ideally back an administration proposal to provide roughly $190 million more for USEC, according to Energy Department personnel (Wald, New York Times).

An effort to evaluate the uranium refinement system's functionality and suitability for a nonmilitary business environment could eventually receive as much as $280 million in federal aid, the Washington Post reported. The United States would return control of the equipment to USEC should the assessment turn up positive findings. Otherwise, the government would retain the machinery for potential nuclear-bomb fuel production.

The administration's plan "to provide $88 million to purchase nonfunctional centrifuges from USEC, whose entire market value is $92 million, is a complete and total waste of taxpayer dollars,” House Energy and Commerce Committee member Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said in provided remarks. He is pressing for a Government Accountability Office probe of the matter.

A European-owned uranium refinement facility is operating in New Mexico and a French firm is expected to start building a similar site in Idaho, but U.S. government sources said pacts with other countries bar the United States from generating tritium from any atomic material prepared with equipment designed outside its borders.

Still, a “substantial argument” favors the legality of tritium production with material from those uranium enrichment sites on U.S. territory, according to a Congressional Research Service analysis. In addition, the USEC enrichment site incorporates components from non-U.S. firms, Markey has said.

Tritium supplies are sufficient to meet needs for at least 10 years, according to skeptics of the USEC assistance arrangement (Steven Mufson, Washington Post, June 13).

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