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Tuesday, October 29, 1996

CONTACT: Steven Dolley


The Nuclear Control Institute today debunked recent claims by a German academic that the United States was violating its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by refusing to provide Germany nuclear-weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium (HEU) for use as fuel in a proposed new nuclear research reactor, the FRM-II, at the Technical University-Munich.

"The United States' commitments under the NPT are to 'facilitate . . . peaceful uses of nuclear energy' which it is fulfilling by offering to provide high-density, low enriched uranium (LEU) for use in the FRM-II," said Alan Kuperman, senior policy analyst at NCI. "Numerous technical studies have shown that the FRM-II can achieve equivalent experimental performance with such low-enriched fuel rather than bomb-grade uranium if the reactor were redesigned to have a slightly higher power, thereby avoiding risks of nuclear terrorism and supporting two decades of international nonproliferation efforts."

Since 1980, only two large research reactors have been constructed to use bomb-grade uranium, in Libya and China. A dozen other such reactors built during that time have been designed to use low-enriched fuel. At the same time, several dozen older reactors have converted, or have begun the process of converting, from bomb-grade to non-weapons-usable, LEU fuel.

"In light of the fact that the rest of the world has been moving to abandon civil commerce in bomb-grade uranium ever since the l980 International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation," Kuperman said, "it would seem to be Germany, not the United States, that would be violating international nonproliferation norms if it insists on unilaterally expanding commerce in bomb-grade uranium."

Kuperman also underscored long-term U.S. support for international nuclear research. "It is outrageous that anyone would call into question the U. S. commitment to facilitate peaceful nuclear research under the NPT," said Kuperman. "For several decades the United States has not only provided research reactors and fuel to dozens of countries, it has also offered to accept the return of spent fuel at cut-rate prices, sparing other nations, including Germany, the expense and inconvenience of disposing of radioactive waste. All the United States has asked in return is that those nations support efforts to eliminate unnecessary and dangerous commerce in atom-bomb-grade materials. It is this modest contribution to international nonproliferation efforts that TU-Munich officials appear to be refusing---with the consent of Bonn."

NCI also refuted claims that the recent U.S.-Euratom nuclear cooperation agreement authorizes provision of HEU to the FRM-II. NCI clarified its understanding that Article 8 of the agreement---which concedes that "specific research reactors in Euratom may, under certain circumstances, need to use HEU"---was intended to cover existing research reactors in Europe not yet able to convert to low-enriched fuel. "This provision was never intended to cover new reactors since they can be re-designed to use LEU fuel," said Kuperman. "A 1992 American law (the Schumer Amendment), enacted years before the agreement, bars the export of HEU to such new reactors, so Article 8 can have only this interpretation."

Since U.S. officials have indicated they will provide Germany neither HEU nor approval to re-enrich U.S.-origin fuel already in Europe, Germany's only realistic hope for securing a long-term supply of HEU would appear to be the former Soviet Union. The United States and other nations, however, concerned with potential risks of nuclear terrorism and proliferation, have tried to discourage Russia from seeing bomb-grade uranium exports as a source of hard-currency export earnings.

"Germany is a sovereign state and obviously is free to conduct nuclear research and international commerce in the manner it sees fit," acknowledged Kuperman. "But if it proceeds with this ill-conceived plan to turn Russia into an exporter of bomb-grade nuclear materials and to undermine two decades of international nonproliferation efforts, it should not be surprised if other states in the United Nations view it with suspicion and alarm."

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