End Global Commerce in
Bomb-Grade Fuel

From the International Herald Tribune, May 7, 1998

Reprinted by Permission

By Paul Leventhal and Sharon Tanzer International Herald Tribune
WASHINGTON -The recent disclosure of a U.S.-British operation to remove a few kilograms of high-enriched uranium from a research reactor in the Georgian Republic, to keep the bomb-grade fuel out of the hands of terrorists, exposes the danger of using key ingredients of nuclear weapons in peaceful nuclear programs.

There was a similar wake-up call in 1995. The head of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program defected and disclosed that Iraq had been preparing to turn research reactor fuel into weapons just before the Gulf War. Allied bombings aborted the effort while Iraqi scientists were still sawing off the ends of fuel rods.

Delegates to a Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty meeting, now under way in Geneva, should ponder these disclosures and call for an end to commerce in bomb-grade uranium and plutonium. As a practical matter, such an initiative to help halt the spread of nuclear weapons would not infringe on the treaty's guarantee of peaceful nuclear assistance to member states. The reason: Research and power reactors run just fine on low-enriched uranium, which is unsuitable for weapons.

As a political matter, however, efforts to get these bomb-grade fuels out of commerce run afoul of nuclear interests that are determined to stake the future of the peaceful atom on the use of these fuels.

For example, at a treaty conference in 1995 (before the Iraqi defected), Germany blocked an effort by 11 nations to win universal adherence to a proposal to convert existing research reactors from high-enriched to low-enriched uranium fuel and to recommend that no new civilian reactors requiring high-enriched uranium be constructed.

The reason: Germany is building a research reactor to be fueled with high-enriched uranium at the Technical University of Munich, despite findings by a U.S. government laboratory that low-enriched fuel it has developed for an international reactor conversion program could produce equal or superior results at the Munich reactor.

Britain is also undercutting the reactor conversion program. Instead of diluting the high-enriched uranium removed from Georgia into nonweapons-usable form, it is using it to make targets for production of medical isotopes in reactors. It may seem hard to quarrel with the use of bomb-grade uranium to treat cancer, but in fact targets are now being developed to achieve the same result with low-enriched uranium.

Commerce in plutonium can be halted, too, without disrupting civilian nuclear energy programs. The demise of the breeder reactor in Europe and Japan has eliminated the original rationale for ''peaceful'' plutonium and resulted in dangerous surpluses that will soon dwarf the world's military stockpiles.

Plans to feed the plutonium into conventional power reactors that normally run on low-enriched uranium make no sense except to the plutonium industry. Electrical utilities pay a penalty in added costs and reduced efficiency when they use plutonium fuel in power reactors.

Halting plutonium commerce also would put a stop to sea shipments of plutonium and associated radioactive wastes, which are a growing source of international concern. Few countries benefit from this nuclear trade but many are subjected to its dangers. Why risk accidents, hijackings and sabotage from shipments of fuel with a negative economic value? These shipments will increase in frequency and toxicity in the years ahead unless plutonium is disposed of directly as waste rather than used as fuel.

The best course is to leave plutonium and associated waste products in France and Britain, the world's reprocessing centers, for long-term storage and disposal. This course would have widespread support.

In the face of new realities, peaceful nuclear trade in the essential ingredients of nuclear weapons is an anachronism. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, for all its good intentions, cannot ensure the peaceful use of plutonium and bomb-grade uranium. Delegates in Geneva should face the realities and avert catastrophe by insisting that nuclear power and research programs be operated without these deadly materials.

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