Legislators and analysts are divided over a U.S. company's argument that the future of the nation's nuclear arsenal could depend on developing a new, domestic technology to enrich uranium, the New York Times reported.
The enrichment firm USEC and its backers contend that under international agreements, the United States can use only uranium refined with its own technology as a source for tritium, a hydrogen isotope critical for boosting the explosive power of U.S. nuclear weapons. The sole uranium-enrichment plant to use such a system shut its doors earlier this year, and the Energy Department says the nation is now on track to deplete its remaining reserves in one to two decades.
Nonproliferation Policy Education Center head Henry Sokolski, though, said the tritium restriction was imposed by Washington itself, rather than by any international treaty.
"I don’t get it. Do we not trust Urenco?" he said, referring to the European manufacturer of centrifuges used at an enrichment plant in New Mexico. "It’s like saying we can’t buy cars from Japan because they’re Japanese."
Future U.S. uranium enrichment could also rely on a laser process that originated in Australia.
USEC says the possible need for a domestic uranium-refinement technology could be met by a system in development at the company's American Centrifuge Plant in Piketon, Ohio. Funding for that effort, however, has faced controversy among lawmakers.
Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) on Tuesday led legislators from his state in backing USEC's tritium-based defense of its centrifuge project.
"Long standing statutory and treaty obligations" bar the United States from extracting the isotope from any uranium enriched with a foreign system, Portman and 14 other lawmakers said in a letter to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
Separately, experts have argued that a new, domestically developed enrichment technology would enable the United States to sell power-reactor fuel to non-nuclear weapons states and take back used material, ensuring it is not converted for use in bombs, the Times reported.
"The lack of policy on the front and back end in the fuel cycle will really come back and bite us on the proliferation agenda," George David Banks told the newspaper. He is co-author of a report on the topic, released on Tuesday by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.