December 17. 1999
The Honorable Al Gore
The White House
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. Vice President,
Again, we are writing about
the U.S. program to halt production of weapons-grade plutonium at Russia's three
remaining material-production reactors. On November 3,
we wrote to express our concern that the plan to convert the cores of the reactors to bomb-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel was ill-conceived, because the increased proliferation and terrorism risks from new HEU commerce would far outweigh the benefits of halting Russia's remaining production of weapons-grade plutonium. At the time, we urged you to adopt an alternate plan to convert the cores to low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel, which cannot be used directly in nuclear weapons. In a reply dated April 19, 1999, you reported the U.S. government had "agreed to the use of HEU fuel for the initial cores." However, you also acknowledged our concerns, stating that the United States will concurrently pursue the development and qualification of an LEU design for the converted reactors when it becomes available."
We believe that core conversion, if it is to proceed, should use LEU fuel in the initial cores. As we stated in our earlier letter, "the HEU core-conversion option is worse than doing nothing." Now, however, newly available information suggests that the best option - in terms of nuclear safety and security - may be to abandon the core-conversion project entirely.
This conclusion is based on several important pieces of information. First, the project
is significantly behind schedule, so that the first reactor cannot be converted until 2003 at the
earliest, regardless of the fuel selected. Second, Russian regulatory officials have called into
question the safety of the reactors - whether or not converted --and have raised serious doubts
that the reactors, even if converted, could operate until 2010 as originally planned., Third,
despite your assurances to us, the LEU option is, in fact, not being pursued expeditiously due
to the opposition of U.S. and Russian bureaucrats.2 Fourth, the estimated U.S. cost of the project has exploded from $80 million to $300 million.
As a result, it now appears that the United States will spend at least $300 million to convert the cores of three reactors to HEU fuel just in time for them to shut down. This is an indefensible waste of taxpayer dollars because Russian production of weapons-grade plutonium will cease in the middle of the next decade with or without core conversion.
Further, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission echoed Russian safety concerns in a letter to the State Department nearly a year ago, but those concerns have yet to be addressed in any meaningful way. This suggests that the reactors should be shut down as soon as possible. Spending millions on core conversion could prolong the operation of three unsafe reactors by several years. Instead, funding should be redirected to help Russia obtain nonnuclear replacement power sources, so that the reactors can be closed before there is an accident. By working with our allies in Europe and East Asia, who share an interest in averting a nuclear accident in Siberia, $300 million from the United States could go a long way toward providing replacement power sources.
The core-conversion project might be salvageable if LEU were adopted
promptly for the initial cores and if safety were given first priority. However, judging
from the bureaucratic politics in Russia and the United States, such a course now appears
extremely unlikely. Thus, the prudent course is to terminate the core-conversion project
immediately and redirect funds to a multilateral effort to help Russia find replacement
We would appreciate the opportunity to meet with you to discuss this
proposal in greater detail and will telephone to seek an appointment. Thank you for your
Alan Kuperman Paul Leventhal
Cc: The Honorable Bill Richardson, Secretary of Energy
The Honorable William Cohen, Secretary of Defense
The Honorable Pete Domenici, U.S. Senate
The Honorable Richard Lugar, U.S. Senate
1 Alexander Dmitriev, Deputy Chairman
Gosatomnadzor, "Status on Conversion of ADE-2,4,5 Reactors,"
September 1999 [translated from Russian].
2 For example, although LEU fuel elements already have been fabricated in Russia, the United States has provided no funding for their test irradiation.
3 This revised cost estimate is that of the project director, U.S. Col. Jim Reid, quoted in Nuclear Weapons &
Materials Monitor, May 24, 1999.
4 Letter dated January 7, 1999, from NRC Chairman Shirley Ann Jackson to Acting Under Secretary of State John D. Holum.
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