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                                                            November 3, 1998


The Honorable Albert Gore, Jr.

Vice President of the United States

The White House

Washington, DC 20500


Re: Conversion of Russia’s Plutonium Production Reactors


Dear Mr. Vice President,


            We write to urge your personal intervention to avert an inter-agency decision that could undermine your initiative to cap Russian stocks of fissile material by converting the cores of Russia's three remaining weapons-plutonium production reactors.  If immediate action is not taken, this impending decision not only could undermine your initiative, but become a source of profound embarrassment for the Clinton Administration.


            At the outset, we wish to underscore our wholehearted support of your goal to terminate Russian production of weapons-grade plutonium, and thereby facilitate arms control and reduce risks of theft or diversion of this material that could contribute to nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism.  However, it is essential this mission be carried out in a way that does not inadvertently increase these risks.


            There are two competing plans for converting the fuel in the Russian reactors to halt their continued annual production of 1.4 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium.  One plan relies on fuel of highly enriched uranium (HEU), a bomb-grade material that itself is vulnerable to diversion or theft for nuclear weapons.  The other plan relies on low-enriched uranium (LEU), an alternative which is not suitable for nuclear weapons.  A recent study, prepared by Russian scientists with the support of the U.S. Argonne National Laboratory and released at an international conference last month, reports that LEU conversion is equally feasible with little or no extra cost or delay. [1]


            It is readily apparent that only LEU core conversion can fulfill your stated goal of enhancing security by reducing risks from Russian weapons-grade nuclear materials.  The LEU plan would have the double benefit of halting Russian production of weapons-grade plutonium and reducing the Russian stockpile of HEU.  (Under the LEU option, the United States should require that military HEU be “blended down” to make the LEU fuel.)  Particularly important, the LEU cores would not themselves raise significant risks of nuclear proliferation or nuclear terrorism.


            By contrast, although the HEU option also would halt production of weapons-grade plutonium, it would do so at the expense of radically increasing commerce in weapons-grade uranium.  More disturbing, the HEU fuel for the Russian reactors would be in a form particularly susceptible to theft and diversion.  The HEU option would require the fabrication, transport, and use within Russia of some 3.6 metric tons of weapons-grade HEU per year, in the form of 200,000 tiny fuel elements each containing less than an ounce of uranium, and thus well suited for concealment by individuals.


Even after irradiation, the fuel still would be vulnerable to theft and diversion after a modest period of cooling, because the uranium would remain sufficiently enriched for weapons, while the tiny elements would not emit sufficient radiation to be "self protecting"  Such risks would be exacerbated if Russia reprocessed the spent fuel, as it now intends, to recover the remaining HEU. 


These facts belie the claim that the HEU option would “dispose” of 3.6 tons of HEU per year.  In reality, its main impact would be to expose all of this HEU to risks of theft and diversion, while ultimately leaving more than half of it still in weapons-usable form. [2]   (By contrast, the LEU option truly could “dispose” of 3.6 tons of HEU annually, by blending it down permanently to a non-weapons-usable form.)


In short, the HEU conversion plan would eliminate annual commerce in weapons-grade plutonium of 1.4 metric tons by increasing annual commerce in weapons-grade uranium by 3.6 metric tons annually – a bad bargain.  The increased proliferation and terrorism risks from HEU commerce would overwhelm the benefit of halting weapons-grade plutonium production.  An initiative intended to enhance our security would undermine it.


            The HEU plan also would undermine a two-decade international non-proliferation effort, led by the United States – and explicitly endorsed in the Administration's nonproliferation statement of September 27, 1993 [3] -- to reduce and ultimately eliminate global civilian commerce in HEU.  Known as the Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) program, this initiative has succeeded in reducing annual U.S. exports of HEU -- which traditionally represented the bulk of global HEU commerce -- from 1.5 tons in 1977, the year prior to the program's inception, to zero during the last five years.  The Russian HEU core conversion plan thus would reverse decades of progress.  Our allies rightly would question why we have pressed them to avoid using small amounts of HEU, when we now would facilitate Russia's civilian use of massive quantities of the same material.


For several years, the U.S.-Russian program to convert the production reactors has been biased in favor of HEU conversion, largely due to the insistence of Russian bureaucrats, who repeatedly have fed incorrect information to the U.S. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).  Now, however, the recent study prepared by Russian and U.S. scientists has clarified matters.  Conversion to LEU should cause no more than a seven-month delay beyond the projected date of conversion to HEU.  That is because the required, two-year irradiation test of LEU fuel could begin as soon as March 1999, only seven months after the August 1998 start of the HEU test of identical duration. [4]   Assuming no unforeseen contingencies, any claim that the LEU alternative would delay conversion by more than seven months is based on bureaucratic political opposition, in Russia and in the United States, rather than scientific or technical obstacles. [5]   Moreover, if fuel testing turns out not to be the rate-limiting step in conversion, due to expected delays in other required reactor and security modifications, it is possible that the switch to LEU would result in an even shorter delay in conversion, or none at all. [6]


            The following chart compares the three options for Russia’s production reactors, and assumes the maximum projected delay of seven months for the LEU option.  Calculations of resulting commerce in weapons-grade material are based on ten years of operation after the projected date of conversion under the HEU option. [7]






Resulting Nuclear Weapons-Grade Commerce[8]

Bomb Potential[9]

No Core Conversion

14 metric tons weapons-grade Pu

1,750 SQ's

HEU Core Conversion

36 metric tons HEU

1,440 SQ's

LEU Core Conversion

1 metric ton weapons-grade Pu

   125 SQ's



            It is clear that the LEU option, despite its marginal delay compared to HEU, is far preferable from the standpoint of reducing overall commerce in nuclear weapons-grade materials and associated proliferation and terrorism risks.  More strikingly, the HEU core-conversion option is worse than doing nothing.  It actually would increase commerce in nuclear weapons-usable materials -- in terms of total tonnage -- beyond that in the no-action option of allowing the reactors to continue producing plutonium.  As noted, the bomb-grade material under the HEU option would be more vulnerable to theft and diversion than the current plutonium byproduct of these reactors, due to the nature of the HEU fuel and to transport requirements.


            In coming weeks, the Clinton Administration confronts a fateful decision, as it chooses whether to disburse millions of dollars to Russia for core conversion.  If such funds are disbursed without obtaining a meaningful Russian commitment to LEU fuel, the effect will be to facilitate HEU.  Some have imagined that the Russians could be persuaded to convert first to HEU and then subsequently to LEU, but this is unrealistic, as any “temporary” conversion to HEU almost assuredly would become permanent. 


The issue must be joined now.  First, no further U.S. funds should be disbursed to Russia for modification of the cores of the production reactors (including long-lead procurement) until Russia makes a binding commitment to abandon the HEU option in favor of the LEU option.  Second, no further U.S. funds should be disbursed to Russia, under any conditions, for development, testing or fabrication of HEU fuel for core conversion.  Third, the United States immediately should disburse to Russia the modest funding necessary for testing of the proposed LEU fuel, to facilitate conversion of the Russian reactors to such fuel as quickly as possible.


            Unless the U.S. government takes this position, we fear that the HEU conversion plan could become a source of profound embarrassment for the Clinton Administration.  Indeed, the present case is eerily reminiscent of a policy fiasco earlier in the Administration, involving the proposed Advanced Neutron Source (ANS) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in your home state of Tennessee.  You will recall that the ANS was planned to be built to use HEU fuel despite the Administration’s own commitment to reducing such commerce, in keeping with the longstanding international RERTR consensus against new reactors using HEU fuel.  At the time, in an op-ed article in The Washington Post, we warned that this discrepancy gave the appearance "of the bureaucracy's right hand not knowing what its left is doing."[10]  Soon thereafter, the Administration canceled the reactor, stating that the proposed HEU fuel presented "a non-proliferation policy concern."[11]  We urge you to rectify matters in the present case before they reach such an embarrassing stage.


            In conclusion, in order to cap and reduce Russian stocks of weapons-grade materials, and to avoid Russian civilian commerce in such materials and associated risks of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism, we urge you to ensure that –


1.      No further funds are disbursed to Russia for core conversion (including long-lead procurement) until the United States receives a binding commitment from Russia to abandon the HEU option in favor of the LEU option;


2.      No further funds are disbursed to Russia for HEU fuel development, testing, or fabrication under any conditions; and


3.      Sufficient funds are disbursed immediately to Russia to enable prompt testing of the proposed LEU fuel, to facilitate conversion of the Russian reactors to such fuel as quickly as possible.


            Thank you for your attention to this urgent national security matter.  We would welcome the opportunity to meet with you or your staff to discuss this issue further.



 Alan J. Kuperman                                                     Paul Leventhal

                        Senior Policy Analyst                                                 President


[1] I. Konovalov, et al., "The Feasibility Study of Using Low Enriched Uranium for Conversion of Russian Plutonium Production Reactors," 21st Annual International Meeting on Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors, So Paulo, Brazil, October 19, 1998.


[2] The latest calculations by Konovalov, et al., project that, under the HEU option, operation of Russia’s three production reactors annually would transform 3.6 metric tons of 90%-enriched HEU into 2.3 tons of 83%-enriched HEU, still suitable for weapons.


[3] The Administration stated that, “The U.S. will . . . seek to eliminate where possible the accumulation of stockpiles of highly-enriched uranium or plutonium . . . and seek to minimize the civil use of highly-enriched uranium.”  Contained in “Fact Sheet: Nonproliferation and Export Control Policy,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, September 27, 1993.


[4] The study by Konovalov, et al., actually projects conversion of the first reactor to LEU 15 months after the date officially projected by Russia for conversion of the first reactor under the HEU plan.  However, this latter projection is widely acknowledged by Russian officials to be unrealistic.  Konvalov, et al., project only a six-month delay in conversion of the second and third reactors under the LEU plan beyond the date officially projected for HEU conversion.


[5] There is no reason why post-irradiation examination (PIE) and licensing of the LEU fuel necessarily should take any longer than for the HEU fuel.  (Those advocating conversion to HEU exaggerate the delays of the alternative fuel, by claiming the LEU fuel would require a much longer time for PIE and licensing, because other tests previously have been conducted on the HEU fuel.)  In addition, there is good reason to believe the proposed LEU fuel (19.75%-enriched) will perform successfully, as it is similar to another fuel (21%-enriched) that previously was used successfully for several years in at least one of the production reactors.  Accordingly, there is no reason why full-scale production of LEU fuel should not occur concurrent with the ongoing irradiation testing, as is now planned for the HEU fuel. 


[6] Other required upgrades that could delay conversion include relining channels with zirconium, installing missing emergency core coolings systems, adding neutron absorbers, and modernizing control systems.  Russia’s Gosatomnadzor (GAN) regulatory officials have repeatedly stated that the official HEU schedule is unrealistic, because many GAN approvals are needed before HEU fuels could be inserted in the production reactors, and those approvals are not likely to occur in a manner consistent with the HEU conversion schedule.  In addition, it would be advisable to upgrade physical security at the fuel fabrication plants prior to any production of HEU fuel.  Such upgrades are not scheduled for completion until at least 2001, whereas HEU fuel fabrication is scheduled to commence in 1999.  Any slippage of the HEU schedule would narrow the gap between implementation of the HEU and LEU conversions, and perhaps eliminate any schedule advantage of the HEU option altogether.


[7] The only such commerce under the LEU option would result from the delay in conversion.  If this delay were reduced for reasons discussed above, the marginal commerce in weapons-grade material under the LEU option could be reduced even further to zero. 


[8] The HEU and LEU conversion options also would produce relatively small amounts of plutonium in their spent fuel.  Over ten years, the HEU option would produce on the order of 0.03 metric tons of plutonium, and the LEU option less than one metric ton.  This material would be of commercial grade, as opposed to the weapons-grade material that is currently produced.  Moreover, it is not certain that this plutonium would be separated from the spent fuel by reprocessing under either or both of these options, so it is excluded from the bottom line.


[9] An SQ is a “significant quantity” of fissile material -- 8 kgs. of Pu, or 25 kgs. of HEU -- traditionally considered sufficient for an implosion-type nuclear weapon, for purposes of International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.


[10] "Nonproliferation Fumble," The Washington Post, August 26, 1994.


[11] "DOE Facts: A New Neutron Source for the Nation," U.S. Department of Energy, February 1995, p. 1.


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