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Phasing Out Remaining Global HEU Commerce by
Conditionally and Temporarily Renewing U.S. Exports of HEU

Alan J. Kuperman and Paul L. Leventhal1

Presented at the International Meeting on the
Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) Program
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
October 5-10, 1997


The RERTR program stands on the brink of fulfilling its historic mission. However, a series of missteps and misunderstandings have recently raised the risk that defeat will be snatched from the jaws of victory. Perhaps the most serious threat to the RERTR regime is posed by France's pending import of 625 kilograms of bomb- grade, highly enriched uranium (HEU) from Russia, intended primarily to fuel its high-flux research reactor at the Institute Laue-Langevin in Grenoble, as well as its Orphee research reactor. As the first export of HEU from Russia to a facility outside the former Soviet bloc, this precedential transaction would establish Russia as a new global supplier of bomb-grade uranium, potentially setting the stage for a rise in international HEU commerce, rather than its phase-out as envisioned under the RERTR program. Apparently, France turned to Russia for supply of the fuel because the United States was perceived as unable or unwilling to continue supplying such fuel in the wake of the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 1992, which, pursuant to its so-called Schumer Amendment, places sharp restrictions on HEU exports. Unexplained delays in Russia's shipment of this material to France2 provide a fortuitous window of opportunity in which efforts can and should be made by France and the United States to resolve present differences in a manner beneficial to each, as well as in the interest of global security.

This paper proposes an arrangement under which the United States would renew exports of HEU to France, in exchange for pledges from France enabling the export to comply with the principles and objectives of the RERTR program as embodied in U.S. law. In so doing, the arrangement would obviate the need for Russian HEU export, thereby avoiding its dangerous precedent. By enabling high quality scientific research to continue, while simultaneously helping to fulfill the RERTR program's original goal, such an arrangement would truly be a "win-win" solution.

RERTR -- On the Brink of Fulfilling Its Original Mission

The RERTR program -- headquartered at Argonne National Laboratory -- was established in 1978 to reduce the risks of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism posed by continued use of bomb-grade, highly enriched uranium as fuel in nuclear research reactors. The program's original goal was to eliminate the use of such fuel in nuclear research reactors supplied by the United States, by developing substitute fuel of higher-density, low enriched uranium (LEU), not suitable for weapons. As the substitute fuels were developed, existing reactors were to be converted to LEU and new reactors were to be designed to use LEU.

The RERTR program has proved remarkably successful. Of the 42 research reactors with power of at least 1 megawatt that were originally supplied HEU fuel by the United States, 37 either have converted to LEU, are in the process of converting, or have no further need for fuel -- enabling a sharp decline in U.S. HEU exports. (Three of the remaining reactors, two in France and one in Belgium, cannot yet convert.3 Operators of the other two, the European Union's Petten reactor in the Netherlands and the Safari reactor in South Africa, so far have refused to convert.)

The United States also has taken steps to reduce its own use of highly enriched uranium. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1986 ordered the conversion of all licensed, domestic research reactors. Of 20 such reactors, nine already have converted and another eight are in the process. The remaining three -- MIT, University of Missouri-Columbia, and NIST -- apparently cannot yet convert. In addition, the U.S. Department of Energy continues to utilize HEU fuel at three of its research reactors.4 Two of these cannot yet convert (the Advanced Test reactor at INEL and the High Flux Isotope reactor at ORNL), while conversion studies are underway on the third (the Brookhaven Medical reactor), which may well be able to be converted.

Also in keeping with the RERTR principle, 12 large new research reactors (with power greater than 1 MW) constructed around the world since 1978 have been designed to use LEU fuel, including a 20-megawatt reactor in Japan, 30-megawatt reactors in South Korea and Indonesia, and two U.S. research reactors. Of special significance, China has now apparently joined the international consensus on LEU fuel for large new research reactors by designing its next research reactor to use LEU fuel.5 In the same vein, in 1995, the United States abandoned plans for a new HEU-fueled research reactor, the Advanced Neutron Source, at least partly because the bomb- grade fuel presented "a non-proliferation policy concern."6

The end of the Cold War opened further opportunities, as the United States entered into agreements with Russia and China to expand the scope of the RERTR program -- working toward conversion of research reactors operating in, and supplied by, those countries. In addition, the RERTR program also has been developing a system for production of molybdenum-99 for medical isotopes, using LEU rather than HEU targets to further reduce the need for civilian commerce in HEU.

The Dangers of the Russian Export

The proposed export of 625 kilograms of bomb-grade uranium from Russia to France runs the risk of severely undermining the progress of the RERTR program. The danger does not stem from the fact that this export would enable continued use of HEU at France's ILL-Grenoble and Orphee reactors in the near term. Indeed, these two reactors apparently cannot convert to existing LEU fuels without significant penalties (in terms of cost and/or performance), and so are not yet expected to convert under the RERTR regime. Rather, the inherent dangers of the Russian export stem from other likely consequences:

The Requirements of the Schumer Amendment

While some in France apparently have interpreted the Schumer Amendment, and U.S. administrative review procedures, as indication that the United States is unwilling to consider any further exports of HEU, the law does not prohibit all exports of HEU. Rather, the law states simply that three conditions must be met prior to U.S. NRC approval of any export of HEU for use as a reactor fuel or target:

(1) "There is no [LEU] fuel that can be used in that reactor." (The law defines "can be used" as "qualified by the RERTR program" and permitting "the large majority of ongoing and planned experiments and isotope production to be conducted in the reactor without a large percentage increase in the total cost of operating the reactor.");

(2) The recipient has "provided assurances that, whenever [LEU] can be used in that reactor, it will use that [LEU] in lieu of HEU."; and

(3) "The U.S. Government is actively developing [LEU] that can be used in that reactor."

As noted, the two French reactors at issue cannot use existing LEU fuels, so the first condition is satisfied. Moreover, the U.S. government restarted LEU fuel development several years ago, so that the third condition is satisfied. Thus, the only legal obstacle in the United States to exporting HEU to France is the second condition: the absence to date of assurances by France that it will abide by the principles of the RERTR program by converting its reactors if and when suitable LEU fuel is developed.

A Win-Win Solution

While some international problems are zero-sum, necessarily entailing winners and losers, the current situation is not one. An obvious solution exists to satisfy the needs of both the United States and France, as well as global security interests. In this case, the United States seeks to maintain the RERTR regime and to discourage Russia from becoming a new supplier of HEU. For its part, France wants to obtain a reliable supply of HEU for its existing research reactors that cannot use LEU, and has repeatedly expressed support for the RERTR program. (Indeed, scientists at ILL have cooperated with Argonne in the past, and France is designing its next research reactor to use LEU fuel.) The goals of these two states are by no means mutually exclusive.

The challenge is mainly one of designing an agreement between France and the United States that captures these mutual interests. From the French perspective, the United States should be willing to expedite exports of HEU, rather than repeating the bureaucratic delays that have hampered exports in the recent past. From the U.S. perspective, France should be willing to make two complementary pledges (in addition to formally canceling the purchase of HEU from Russia).

First, France should make the RERTR commitment expressed in the Schumer Amendment -- essentially a pledge to abide by the RERTR regime, which France repeatedly has said it supports. Second, France should pledge that any new U.S. exports of HEU will be used only in the two identified French reactors, and that existing stocks of HEU in France will not be exported to research reactors outside of the RERTR regime -- that is, Petten and the FRM-II at present.7 Otherwise, renewed U.S. exports of HEU could have the effect of undermining the RERTR program, precisely opposite to their intent.

Regarding the first pledge, a key sticking point in past bilateral discussions apparently has been the question of who determines whether new LEU fuels "can be used" in the French reactors. While the precise details of this mechanism should be subject to negotiation, several fundamental principles are clear. First, the determination must be bilateral; neither state should make the decision on its own. Second, the determination must be based on technical, rather than political, considerations. Third, the criteria of the determination must be those enunciated in the Schumer amendment, to be consistent with the long-standing principles of the RERTR regime as embodied in U.S. law.8

Regarding the second pledge, while France may be reluctant to accept restrictions on re-export of HEU, there is nonetheless a precedent for such a French commitment regarding end-use of HEU exported from the United States. In 1992, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission considered the export to France for defabrication of 280 kilograms of fabricated, unirradiated HEU fuel left over from the defunct Fort St. Vrain reactor. The Nuclear Control Institute petitioned to intervene in the export-licensing case out of concern that the recovered material could contribute to international commerce in HEU. Negotiations ensued between France and the United States, and France pledged that the recovered material would be physically blended down to LEU, not merely swapped with existing LEU (which might have made the export a violation of the Schumer Amendment, in addition to contributing to global HEU commerce). After France made the requisite pledges, the NRC issued the license and the export proceeded in 1994.9 Thus, the proposal put forward in this paper would entail from France only a type of commitment on end-use that it has been willing to make in the past, when its interests were facilitated by such a pledge.


The RERTR program is largely an unsung success story, in part because the absence of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism is not big news. However, this should not obscure the remarkable progress the program has achieved, nor the grave risks that would follow if the regime were undermined and/or abandoned. The danger of the pending Russian export of HEU to France is precisely that it risks undermining the RERTR regime, through a variety of mechanisms discussed above. Fortunately, there is a win-win solution at hand that can help to preserve the gains of the RERTR program and bring it to fruition, so long as French and U.S. officials have the vision and energy to put inertia and mutual suspicion behind them in order to grasp the attainable. All those who support the objectives and ideals of the RERTR program should actively encourage the United States and France to embrace this win- win solution.

End Notes

1. Alan J. Kuperman is a senior policy analyst, and Paul L. Leventhal is president, of the Nuclear Control Institute in Washington, DC. Back to document

2. Periodic reports have arisen that shipment of the first installment of Russian HEU to France is imminent. See, most recently, Ann MacLachlan, "Political Intervention Will Free Russian HEU, French Expect," NuclearFuel, July 14, 1997, p. 8. However, at the time of this writing, there is no public indication that the first shipment has commenced. Moreover, in interviews this summer conducted by the first author of this paper, senior French officials were rather pessimistic about the prospect of the shipments commencing soon. The actual reason for the delay has not been made public, according to these officials. Back to document

3. Ultra-high density LEU fuels currently under development by the RERTR program, if successfully demonstrated and qualified, may enable these and several other high-performance research reactors in the United States (discussed in the text) and Russia to convert to LEU fuel without substantial penalties in terms of cost or performance. The proposal in this paper is equally relevant for Belgium, in regard to its BR-2 reactor, although that situation appears to be less urgent because Belgium has not signed any contracts with Russia and reportedly has had extensive negotiations with the United States about renewing U.S. HEU exports in return for making the pledge required by the Schumer Amendment, discussed in the text. Back to document

4. A fourth DOE reactor that has relied on HEU fuel in the past, the High Flux Beam reactor at Brookhaven National Laboratory, is currently shut down because of a tritium leak and is not expected to be restarted. Back to document

5. Shi Yongkang et al., "The China Advanced Research Reactor Project," and Yuan Luzheng et al., "Preliminary Study of Core Characteristics for the Scheduled CARR," presented at the Fifth Meeting of the Asian Symposium on Research Reactors, Taejon, Korea, May 29-31, 1996. Back to document

6. "DOE Facts: A New Neutron Source for the Nation," U.S. Department of Energy, February 1995, p. 1. Back to document

7. The Safari reactor relies on South Africa's own store of HEU. Back to document

8. According to one trade press report, France in applying for U.S. HEU for its high flux reactor stipulated that it would agree to convert the reactor to LEU "only if there is no sacrifice in cost or power"---a departure from the RERTR premise adopted by other research reactor operators, including French operators, to accept some relatively small sacrifice in the interest of achieving universal adherence to the RERTR program. See Mark Hibbs, "Bruges Meeting Focues on Future of Research Reactor Fuel Cycle," NuclearFuel, February 10, 1997, p. 5. Back to document

9. Ultimately, the pledges were made in a letter dated September 24, 1993, from Michael A. McMurphy, President and CEO of COGEMA, Inc., to Ronald D. Hauber, U.S. NRC. In the letter, COGEMA, Inc. confirms that, under the arrangement with its French parent company, "all of the HEU contained in that fuel will be blended down to LEU;" COGEMA, Inc. "will not allow any substitution of the HEU" for other fuel; "COGEMA, Inc. will retain title to such HEU until the HEU has been blended down to LEU;" and COGEMA, Inc. will promptly notify the NRC "upon completiion of this blending down of the HEU." The NRC, upon receiving these commitments, approved the export of the fuel on Januar 19, 1994. (See SECY-93-352 and export license XSNM02748, U.S. NRC.) As of February 10, 1997, the fabricated fuel remained in storage in COGEMA's facilities in France. R&D has been completed on the down-blending, and COGEMA expects to begin disassembly in mid-1999 and to complete down-blending to LEU by early 2001. (See letter from Frank A. Shallo, COGEMA, Inc., to Hauber, dated February 10, 1997.) Back to document

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