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April 7, 1997

Position Paper


At the 1995 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review and Extension Conference, eleven governments joined in calling attention to the non-proliferation value of eliminating commerce in highly enriched uranium (HEU), a weapons-usable nuclear material. Because nuclear research reactors are the principal civilian users of highly enriched uranium, the working paper sponsored by this group of nations recommended that "no new civilian reactors requiring high-enriched uranium be constructed" and that "international cooperation to facilitate conversion" of research reactors from weapons-usable to low-enriched uranium fuel "be continued." [Main Committee II/Working Paper 8]

Since 1995, there have been a number of initiatives in support of this vital objective. The United States has resumed the "take back" of both HEU and LEU foreign research reactor spent fuel, and reinstated funding for advanced LEU fuel development under the RERTR ("Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors") Program, to enable conversion of those few reactors that cannot yet be converted to existing low-enriched fuels. The United States also cancelled its own plan to construct an HEU-fueled research reactor, and it has initiated assistance to China and Russia to convert their research reactors from HEU to LEU fuels.

However, Germany continues to insist on using highly enriched uranium fuel in its FRM-II research reactor, under construction in Bavaria, which would be the first large Western research reactor built to use bomb-grade fuel in nearly two decades---since establishment of the RERTR Program and the international consensus against HEU in 1978. In addition, South Africa's refusal to convert its Safari I reactor to LEU and to blend down its stockpile of former weapons uranium into LEU both threaten to undo global progress in eliminating commerce in this weapons-usable material. Objections from these states forced a weakening of the Working Paper 8 proposal in the final report of Main Committee II. [Report of Main Committee II/1]

Universality (that is, non-discrimination) is the essential element of the international effort to eliminate HEU commerce in bomb-grade uranium. Reactor operators have been willing to convert to non-weapons-usable fuel---and to accept the economic and performance penalties of doing so---because the universality principle guaranteed that they would not be put at a competitive disadvantage with respect to neutron research, medical-isotope production, or other reactor activities. If Germany breaks the taboo against new reactors using HEU, it will set a precedent and send a message that modern reactors require HEU. In the future, other countries will likewise demand the right to use HEU in new reactors. South Africa's refusal to convert its reactor and blend down its HEU also has a damaging effect on international cooperation to eliminate bomb-grade uranium.

A further problem is that Russia is now reportedly being approached by Euratom as a long-term source of supply of HEU. If Russia agrees to export HEU to Euratom, it can only stimulate Russia to look for more new customers for its HEU and send a message that reactor operators can flout the longstanding international norm.

The RERTR program is one of the success stories of the IAEA and NPT regimes. Since 1978, the program has made great progress in reducing HEU commerce. If the international community provides its full support, the RERTR program can within the decade fulfill its goal of eliminating entirely civil commerce in bomb-grade uranium for research reactors. However, if leading nuclear industrial and developing states continue the recent trend of withholding their full cooperation from the program, it could soon collapse, resulting in a resurgence of HEU commerce and an ensuing increase in the risk of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism.

To help overcome these threats to the progress of the last two decades toward eliminating commerce in HEU, the Nuclear Control Institute urges governments to draw international attention to this issue at the NPT Preparatory Committee. We urge your government to support this important non-proliferation objective and to secure its eventual place on the agenda of the NPT Review Conference of 2000.

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