international trade in bomb-grade, highly enriched uranium (HEU) began with
little foresight in the 1950s, under the U.S. Atoms for Peace program. Over the
next three decades, the United States exported dozens of nuclear research
reactors and tons of HEU---the same material used in the Hiroshima bomb.
If stolen or diverted, a tiny fraction of this material---less than 25 kilograms
(55 pounds) ---is enough to build a nuclear weapon.
this material is especially dangerous because of the relative ease with which it
can be made into a bomb. According to Manhattan Project physicist Luis Alvarez,
modern weapons-grade uraniumterrorists, if they had suchmaterial, would
have a good chance of setting off a high-yield explosion simply by dropping
one half of the material onto the other half....Even a high school kid could
make a bomb in short order.
the 1970s did the U.S. government begin to appreciate fully the proliferation
dangers of such commerce. The Carter Administration realized that the HEU fuel
could be diverted from research reactors and used directly by nations or
terrorists to make nuclear weapons. Most research reactors are on university
campuses and at research centers where security is lax and access to this
material relatively unfettered.
In 1978, the
United States established the Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors
(RERTR) Program to convert reactors at home and abroad from bomb-grade to
low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel and ensure the same reactor performance without
the proliferation risks. Until late in the Reagan Administration, much progress
had been made in this U.S.-led international effort to curtail global commerce
in HEU. By the late 1980s, however, the program became endangered by neglect and
lack of support in the Executive Branch. Nuclear Control Institute fought to
restore funds that had been zeroed out and convinced Congress to keep the
than a decade, NCI has played the leading role in maintaining and building
support in Congress and the Executive Branch for the reduced-enrichment program
and its objective of eliminating commerce in bomb-grade uranium. In 1990, we
intervened successfully before the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to block a
license to export bomb-grade fuel to a reactor in Europe that was capable of
converting to an alternate, non-weapons-grade fuel. Result: the fuel was never
sent, and Congress responded to the NCI initiative by enacting a law two years
later, the Schumer Amendment, which effectively cut off U.S. exports of
bomb-grade uranium. The law allows U.S. exports of bomb-grade fuel only on an
interim basis and only to
reactor operators who have agreed to convert their reactors as soon as possible to uranium that cannot be
used in weapons.
Control Institute continues to work to eliminate all commerce in bomb-grade
uranium by supporting efforts to convert research reactors in Russia, the former
Soviet Republics and China to non-weapons-grade uranium. We also are leading an
effort to win an international agreement among medical isotope producers to
replace bomb-grade uranium targets, which are used to produce some isotopes in
reactors, with targets made from low-enriched uranium. We also have been
instrumental in winning support for an ongoing U.S. program to return spent fuel
containing bomb-grade uranium to the United States from foreign research
reactors. The spent fuel is to be blended down into a non-weapons-usable form
and disposed of as waste.
See Special Section on bomb-grade uranium.