Wednesday, June 27, 2001   617-666-6078


The Nuclear Control Institute today announced it has petitioned the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to reject a Belgian request to import weapons-grade uranium from the United States. NCI contends that there already is enough bomb-grade fuel for a Belgian reactor to continue operating until it converts to a new fuel that is unsuitable for weapons.

In its petition, filed on June 25, NCI argues that the 70 pounds (32 kilograms) requested by the operator of the BR-2 high-power research reactor in Mol, Belgium, would create surpluses of bomb-grade uranium in Europe. Such surpluses could undermine U.S. nonproliferation goals and raise unacceptable risks of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism, NCI said.

The Belgians claim they need all of the uranium, equivalent to one or more nuclear weapons, to fuel the reactor for another two years after the current supply of fuel runs out in 2004. But NCI presents evidence in its petition that the Belgians already have sufficient bomb-grade uranium to fuel the reactor through 2006 when an alternative non-weapons-grade fuel is scheduled to become available and even well beyond that date.

At issue is uranium identical to what is used in nuclear warheads highly enriched uranium (HEU) metal. The uranium is enriched to 93.3% in the fissile isotope, uranium-235, which provides a high flux of neutrons needed in research reactors but is also suitable for nuclear explosions. Since 1978, the United States has led an international program to phase out civilian commerce in bomb-grade uranium because of its obvious proliferation and terrorism risks. Most of the research reactors using U.S.-exported HEU have been converted to special low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel that provides high performance but is unsuitable for weapons.

The operator of the Belgian reactor is one of the last to pledge to convert to the non-explosive fuel when it becomes available. This pledge is a requirement of U.S. law for foreign operators to qualify for interim exports of HEU prior to conversion to LEU, under the terms of the Schumer Amendment to the Energy Policy Act of 1992.

Nuclear Control Institute supported enactment of the Schumer Amendment, and its current petition is one in a long series of actions and initiatives by the Institute that has resulted in bomb-grade uranium no longer being commonly used in nuclear research programs throughout the world. (See Declaration of Paul L. Leventhal, president of NCI, an attachment to the petition.)

NCI is the leading non-governmental organization promoting the international Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) program. This program, based at the U.S. Argonne National Laboratory, develops proliferation-resistant LEU fuel and helps operators convert their reactors to the safer fuel. Of the 42 research reactors with power of at least one megawatt that were originally supplied with HEU fuel by the United States, 38 either have converted to LEU, are in the process of converting, or have no further need for fuel. A total of 31 reactors worldwide already have been fully converted, including 11 U.S. reactors. In addition, 21 new research reactors built after establishment of the RERTR program are operating or plan to operate on LEU fuels developed by the RERTR program.

All told, at least 71 reactors around the world eventually will operate on LEU rather than HEU fuel thanks to the accomplishments of the RERTR program. As a result, U.S. exports of bomb-grade uranium have dropped from a peak of nearly three tons annually in 1967 to virtually zero during the last nine years.

The Belgians said their request for bomb-grade uranium is needed to provide fuel for the reactor in the interim from 2004 to 2006. However, NCI cited evidence in the Belgians own application indicating that the operator already possesses sufficient uranium for this period. The reactor consumes approximately 15 kilograms of HEU annually. In its application, the operator acknowledged that after 2004, it will still have 84.3 kilograms of HEU, of which 30 kilograms will be ready for fabrication into fuel without any further processing.

Given this existing stock of bomb-grade uranium, NCI stated in its petition that belying any real need for fresh HEU exports, the reality is that Applicant already has enough HEU on hand to fabricate sufficient fuel to last until 2006, but simply would prefer to save this stock of HEU . . .

NCIs petition argues that there are two dangers if the Commission approves HEU exports to the Belgians in the absence of any demonstrated need for such material. First, such an approval would remove any incentive for the Belgians to convert their reactor expeditiously to the proliferation-resistant LEU fuel. If the operator were now provided a surplus stock of HEU, it would be able to continue operating in the future even if it so violated its Schumer pledge to convert to LEU, said NCI in its petition.

The second danger of approving the requested export would arise if the reactor did convert to LEU on schedule in 2006, as this would leave a surplus of U.S.-origin HEU in Europe. Surplus U.S.-origin HEU is not subject to U.S. control in Europe. Under the existing U.S.-EURATOM nuclear cooperation agreement, once HEU is exported to Europe, it can be transferred to different locations and end-uses within Europe without the approval or even the knowledge of the United States. This could undermine U.S. nonproliferation policy, for example, if the HEU were sold to an end-user that did not meet the requirements for fresh exports of HEU from the United States, according to the NCI petition.

NCI cited the specific example of Germanys FRM-II reactor, a controversial plant due to start operation later this year in Bavaria. It is the first high-power research reactor in the West built to use HEU since establishment of the international consensus against construction of HEU-fueled reactors in 1978. The Technical University of Munich, operator of the new German reactor, managed to evade U.S. export control laws by acquiring surplus U.S.-origin HEU within Europe after the United States refused on nonproliferation policy grounds to export fresh HEU to the reactor. But the FRM-II operator only managed to acquire a few years worth of HEU, and it is eager to acquire any further supplies of HEU that arise in Europe.

NCI Senior Policy Analyst Alan J. Kuperman, who prepared the technical analysis for NCIs petition, noted that the existence of the rogue German reactor made it even more imperative that the NRC not approve any surplus exports for the Belgian reactor or any other facility in Europe.

The Bavarians are undermining nuclear cooperation between Europe and the United States by violating the international non-proliferation consensus for phasing out use of this dangerous bomb-grade fuel, said Kuperman. Its clear they want to soak up any surplus HEU they can find, which makes it all the more urgent for the NRC to keep other European reactors on a short leash with regard to HEU supplies. The rest of Europe is being inconvenienced because of the sins of the Bavarian FRM-II. But if the Belgians have a problem with that, they should complain to the Germans, not the United States.