The Honorable Warren Christopher
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
Washington, DC 20520
Dear Secretary Christopher,
We are writing to urge your intervention to prevent an imminent nuclear transaction between Russia and the European Union that threatens to undermine two key pillars of U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policy.
According to press reports, Minatom and Euratom are in the final stages of negotiations to export tons of bomb-grade, highly enriched uranium (HEU) from Russia to the European Union for use as fuel in reactors that do not satisfy the nonproliferation criteria for U.S. exports of such material. This transaction would undermine the five-year U.S. effort to prevent Russia's bomb-grade uranium from escaping its borders, except to the United States for use as non-weapons-usable, low enriched uranium (LEU). It would convey to Moscow the unmistakable message that bomb- grade uranium is a good source of hard-currency export earnings. One shudders to think of the other eager potential buyers.
The Minatom-Euratom deal would also seal the fate of the 18-year U.S. effort to eliminate civilian commerce in bomb-grade uranium in order to reduce proliferation and terrorism risks, known as the Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) program. Until recently, the RERTR program had made great progress. U.S. exports of bomb-grade uranium declined from a ton annually (sufficient for dozens of nuclear weapons if stolen or diverted) to zero, as foreign research reactors began the process of converting to LEU fuel. Of the dozens of such reactors originally supplied by the United States, only three continue to require HEU, and research is being renewed to enable their conversion as well.
Europe's purchase of HEU from Russia would reverse this progress and threaten the survival of the program. First, it would enable construction of Germany's FRM-II research reactor, the first large research reactor proposed to use bomb-grade fuel -- outside of Libya and China -- since establishment of the RERTR program. Second, once Germany breaks the taboo against bomb- grade uranium, other research reactor operators that have already converted to LEU, or are in the process of doing so, will likewise insist on reverting to HEU. Already, several additional German reactors have sent the message that they are considering this step. Until now, such reactors had no choice but to convert, since the United States had a virtual monopoly on the supply of HEU for reactors. In the absence of Clinton Administration action, however, Russia will most assuredly step in to supply these reactors with HEU as well. As both supply and demand increase, commerce in bomb-grade uranium will spiral up, resurrecting the nightmare scenario that Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter initially created the RERTR program to prevent.
In addition, if the RERTR program crumbles in the west, it will undercut nascent RERTR programs in China and Russia, developed in cooperation with the United States. If HEU again becomes the norm in Europe, there is little hope that either China or Russia will agree to convert their reactors. Continued HEU commerce within those countries is perhaps even more dangerous given their lax physical security and material accountancy procedures.
The Minatom-Euratom deal is a clear-cut attempt to sidestep U.S. statutory nonproliferation restrictions. The so-called Schumer Amendment to the 1992 Energy Policy Act prohibits U.S. exports of bomb-grade uranium to reactors that can use LEU, and permits exports to other reactors only if they pledge to convert to LEU as soon as able to do so. The proposed German reactor does not satisfy the law's criteria, because it is a new reactor and because it can be redesigned to use LEU, as made clear in a recent study by Argonne National Laboratory.
The United States reportedly has protested Germany's plan to use bomb-grade fuel in the new reactor, but Germany's response has been to thumb its nose at the United States -- undermining two U.S. initiatives: the RERTR program and the policy on disposition of Russia's fissile materials. The three research reactors in Europe that continue to require HEU do not need to purchase such material from Russia, because there are sufficient stocks of previously exported, U.S.-origin HEU already within Euratom, assuming this material is not permitted to be diverted to the FRM-II or other reactors that already can use LEU, such as Euratom's HFR-Petten reactor in the Netherlands.
The proliferation and terrorism risks associated with renewed commerce in HEU cannot be underestimated. As former Manhattan Project physicist Luis Alvarez has written, "if separated HEU is at hand it's a trivial job to set off a nuclear explosion . . . even a high school kid could make a bomb in short order."1 Recent revelations about Iraq's "crash program" to divert such fuel from safeguarded reactors to its nuclear weapons program in 1990 demonstrate the reality of this threat.
For all these reasons, we urge you to take immediate action to prevent the culmination of the Minatom-Euratom bomb-grade uranium deal. Failure of the Clinton Administration to act will undermine and reverse major U.S. nonproliferation accomplishments of the last two decades under the Ford, Carter, and Bush Administrations.
Paul Leventhal -- President
Alan Kuperman -- Senior Policy Analyst
Hazel O'Leary, Secretary of Energy
Anthony Lake, National Security Advisor
Lynn Davis, Under Secretary of State
James Goodby, Special Representative of the President
Jesse Helms, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Claiborne Pell, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Benjamin Gilman, House International Relations Committee
Lee Hamilton, House International Relations Committee
John Glenn, U.S. Senate
Ed Markey, U.S. House of Representatives
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