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U.S. Recovers German Reactor Fuel Under New Program, Plans to Help Convert Argentine Reactor

By Mike Nartker

Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON   — The United States this month received the first shipment of U.S.-origin spent fuel repatriated through the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, which seeks to recover U.S.- and Russian-origin fresh and spent nuclear fuel from research reactors around the world, the U.S. Energy Department announced this week (see GSN, July 21).

In addition, the United States plans to work through the initiative to support the conversion of an Argentine research reactor to use low-enriched nuclear fuel instead of weapon-usable high-enriched fuel, a spokesman for the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration told Global Security Newswire this week.

On Aug. 5, the United States received 126 U.S.-origin spent fuel assemblies containing highly enriched and low-enriched uranium from three research reactors in Germany. The spent fuel will be stored at the Energy Department’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina until final plans are made for its disposal, the department said.

“By accepting this material, particularly highly enriched uranium that could be used in nuclear weapons if it falls into the hands of terrorist groups, the Global Threat Reduction Initiative plays a key role in removing this material from international civilian commerce,” U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said in a statement released Tuesday.  “This program is vital to our nonproliferation efforts worldwide and I welcome the support of these efforts by Germany, a close partner of the U.S. in the effort to address the threat of proliferation,” he added.

The German material was repatriated to the United States through the Energy Department’s “takeback” policy, which has been incorporated into the broader initiative. The policy allows foreign research reactors that use U.S.-origin fuel to return the spent material to the United States for storage and disposal if those reactors agree to shut down or convert to use low-enriched uranium.

The Energy Department launched the initiative in May to help prevent terrorists from obtaining fresh and spent research reactor fuel, which could be used to develop crude nuclear or radiological weapons (see GSN, May 26). Under the initiative, the United States plans to recover all U.S.-origin research reactor spent fuel through the takeback policy within a decade. It will also work with Russia to repatriate all Russian-origin fresh highly enriched uranium fuel by the end of 2005 and accelerate and complete the return of all Russian-origin spent fuel by 2010 (see GSN, May 27).

Since the initiative was launched, the United States has agreed to aid in the repatriation of Russian-origin spent fuel from a research reactor in Romania.

NNSA spokesman Bryan Wilkes told GSN this week that the United States will also work through the initiative to recover U.S.-origin spent fuel from a 500-kilowatt research reactor in Argentina and to aid in the conversion of the reactor to LEU use. The effort was first mentioned in a July 9 notice published in the Federal Register.

The RA-6 reactor is operated by the Argentine Comision Nacional de Energia Atomica and located at San Carlos de Bariloche. The reactor’s HEU core could be returned to the United States approximately one year after the material becomes spent, Wilkes said. He did not say, though, when the material would be returned. The cost of the repatriation is estimated at between $1.5 million to $2 million.

Under an agreement reached with the United States described in the Federal Register notice, Argentina is set to recover and blend down to a lower enrichment level more than 7 kilograms of U.S.-origin highly enriched uranium provided to the country through the U.S. Cold War-era “Atoms for Peace” program. The material would then be converted into fuel for use in the RA-6 reactor and a second Argentine research reactor. Argentina wants to convert the RA-6 reactor and create the LEU fuel for its use by next year, Wilkes said, adding that Energy Department technicians would aid in the conversion.

The United States has no “special concerns” over the security of the RA-6 reactor because it is covered by International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, Wilkes said. He added that the reactor is “one of the last” research reactors abroad that has announced its willingness to convert to LEU use.

“This project will contribute to our worldwide effort to eliminate the use of HEU in research reactors,” the National Nuclear Security Administration said in a written response to GSN.

Earlier this month, the Energy Department came under fire from U.S. congressional auditors for delays in its efforts to convert research reactors abroad to use low-enriched uranium (see GSN, Aug. 2). According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report, only 39 of the 105 reactors targeted by the department for conversion since the late 1970s have converted or are in the process of changing. The agency attributed the delay to conversion cost concerns by research reactor operators and technical difficulties the Energy Department has experienced in creating new types of LEU fuel.

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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