November 19, 1998
The Honorable Albert Gore, Jr.
Vice President of the United States
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. Vice President,
We, the undersigned representatives of organizations concerned with arms control and nonproliferation, write regarding your initiative to halt Russia's production of weapons-grade plutonium by converting the cores of its three remaining nuclear production reactors to demilitarize them.
We strongly support the arms control and nonproliferation goals of this initiative. Capping Russia's stock of weapons-grade plutonium, facilitating arms control, and reducing risks of theft or diversion of bomb-grade materials and associated risks of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism are all objectives we enthusiastically share.
However, the United States now confronts a critical decision in the core-conversion initiative -- whether the fuel in the new cores should be highly enriched uranium (HEU), itself a nuclear weapons-grade material subject to risks of theft and diversion, or low-enriched uranium (LEU), a material that cannot be made into nuclear weapons.
For two decades the United States has led an international nonproliferation effort to eliminate use of HEU fuel in civilian reactors -- the Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) program -- due to the obvious risks posed by civilian commerce in nuclear weapons-grade material. The Clinton Administration explicitly endorsed this objective in its September 1993 nonproliferation policy statement. Thus, a decision now to adopt HEU fuel as the means of demilitarizing the Russian reactors would be at cross-purposes with longstanding U.S. nonproliferation policy.
The HEU option for converting the reactor cores would entail Russian commerce in 36 metric tons of weapons-grade uranium over a projected ten years, representing 1,440 "significant quantities" by IAEA standards and sufficient for 650 gun-type nuclear weapons of the type once built by South Africa. Equally alarming, the fuel is to be in a form highly susceptible to theft and diversion, amid continuing U.S. concerns about the adequacy of physical security of Russian transport arrangements and at Russian facilities where the fuel would be fabricated, stored, and used. Theft or diversion of even a small fraction of this material could have grave consequences for U.S. and international security.
By contrast, converting the Russian reactors to LEU cores would achieve the objective of halting weapons-grade plutonium production, without inadvertently raising proliferation risks. A recent feasibility study, prepared by Russian scientists with the assistance of the U.S. Argonne National Laboratory, concludes that conversion of the "reactor cores to LEU is feasible." Moreover, "the preliminary cost assessment has not revealed any significant difference in the fuel-cycle cost of conversion with either LEU or HEU fuels if storage is chosen for spent fuel disposal."
The Russian study projects the first of the three reactors could be converted to an LEU core in March 2002. While this is nominally a 15-month delay beyond scheduled HEU conversion, Russian officials have indicated repeatedly that the HEU schedule is unrealistic. More likely, the LEU option would result in a delay of only seven months or less, a small price to pay for avoiding 3.6 metric tons annually of new HEU commerce.
We are aware that certain interested parties within Russia would prefer to implement the conversion with HEU fuel, but because the United States has not yet disbursed to Russia the bulk of $80 million appropriated for core conversion, you still have significant leverage. We urge you (1) to ensure that no further funds are disbursed that could in any way facilitate HEU core conversion, (2) to provide funding expeditiously to facilitate the LEU conversion option, and (3) to encourage Russia to abandon the HEU option in favor of the LEU option.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent national security matter.
Todd Perry Paul Leventhal
Washington Representative President
Union of Concerned Scientists Nuclear Control Institute
Frank von Hippel John Isaacs
Princeton University Council for a Livable World
David Albright Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr.
Institute for Science and International Security Arms Control Association
Joseph Cirincione Tom Cochran
Senior Associate Director, Nuclear Program
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Natural Resources Defense Council
Alan Kuperman Amb. (Ret.) Jonathan Dean
Senior Policy Analyst Advisor on International Security
Nuclear Control Institute Union of Concerned Scientists
cc: Hon. Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State
Hon. Sandy Berger, National Security Advisor
Hon. William Cohen, Secretary of Defense
Hon. Pete Domenici, U.S. Senate
Hon. John Holum, Under Secretary of State (Acting)
Hon. Richard Lugar, U.S. Senate
Hon. Bill Richardson, Secretary of Energy