FOR AFTERNOON RELEASE
Friday, March 27, 1998
Contact: Alan Kuperman
NCI SAYS FRM-II POSES RISK
OF CATASTROPHIC ACCIDENT
Calls on Merkel, Goppel to Halt Construction
Because New Fuel has Never Been Tested
BONN -- The Nuclear Control Institute today called for a halt to construction of the proposed FRM-II research reactor, at the Technical University-Munich in Garching, because the proposed fuel for the reactor has never been subjected to safety testing necessary to evaluate the risk of a catastrophic accident.
Writing to Bavarian environmental minister Thomas Goppel, who granted a second construction license for the reactor late last year, the Institute said that proceeding with the reactor in the absence of fuel testing would raise the risk of a "core-melt accident, resulting in a catastrophic release of radioactivity to the environment."
"It is unacceptable and reckless behavior," said the NCI letter to Goppel, "to abandon safety testing of the fuel simply because such testing is inconvenient and will result in delays in reactor construction. The responsible step is to delay licensing and construction, to provide time for such tests, rather than rush ahead with building and operating a reactor whose untested fuel could result in a catastrophic accident."
NCI also warned the Bavarian licensing authority against violating widely accepted, international regulatory procedures. "It is highly extraordinary, and may be unprecedented, to license a high-power nuclear research reactor without previously conducting safety tests on the proposed fuel," NCI said in a letter signed by Institute president Paul Leventhal, scientific director Dr. Edwin Lyman, a physicist, and senior policy analyst Alan Kuperman.
In Bonn today, the Institute also called on German federal authorities to exercise three types of statutory oversight authority. First, NCI said, non-proliferation policy is the exclusive purview of the Foreign Ministry, which should insist that the TU-M not use weapons-grade fuel that would violate international non-proliferation norms and undermine strategies for controlling Russian nuclear material. Second, more than half the projected 720-million DM cost of the FRM-II is to be provided from the federal research budget, so that Bonn has the right to demand prudent safety and non-proliferation procedures be followed. Third, German law explicitly invests the federal Environment Ministry with ultimate responsibility for ensuring nuclear reactor safety. "If Bavarian Environment Minister Goppel does not order an immediate halt to work at Garching," said NCI at a Bundestag meeting today, "then federal Environment Minister Angela Merkel should use her legal authority and instruct him to do so."
In Munich yesterday, the Institute also renewed its call for the TU-M to abandon entirely its planned reliance on weapons-grade uranium fuel, warning that the Garching scientists were "running against the tide of history -- and common sense." NCI pointed to an international norm that has guided the phase-out of high-enriched uranium (HEU) over the last 20 years.
Dozens of research reactors worldwide have already converted, or begun converting, to non-weapons-usable fuel of low-enriched uranium. Since 1978, only two large nuclear research reactors anywhere in the world have been constructed to use weapons-grade uranium -- in China and Libya -- whereas at least 12 others have been built to run on low-enriched fuel. More recently, both China and France have announced that their next research reactors will use non-weapons-usable uranium. In 1995, the United States canceled plans for its new reactor that would have relied on high-enriched uranium. These developments belie TU-M claims of a "right" to use weapons-grade uranium, and they demonstrate that the tide of international practice is headed toward a total phase-out of such fuel.
NCI said that the dangers of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism stemming from weapons-grade uranium fuel were underscored by the recent announcement of a framework agreement for Russia to export more than one-thousand kilograms of such uranium to Germany. According to the Institute, at a time when most of the world is trying to prevent leakage of nuclear weapons-grade material from Russia, the proposed deal encourages Moscow to regard HEU as a valuable export commodity. NCI pointed out that the loss or diversion of even a small quantity of this material would be sufficient for a nuclear weapon in the hands of terrorists or such leaders as Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Qaddafi. The FRM-II will require during its lifetime some 1.2 metric tons of high-enriched uranium, sufficient for dozens of nuclear weapons.
The untested fuel at issue in the NCI letter is so-called "high-density, high-enriched" uranium silicide fuel, which contains uranium enriched to a level normally reserved for nuclear weapons. The high-density fuel was originally developed in the United States, but never tested or used in any reactor. Despite this, the TU-M design anticipates that approximately 80 percent of the FRM-II's core will be composed of the untested fuel.
Although suitable reactors were available to test the new fuel, the TU-M instead conducted tests on a different fuel, so-called "low-density, high-enriched uranium," which is also weapons-grade but will comprise only about 20 percent of the FRM-II's core. These tests are insufficient, NCI said, because the still untested fuel, which would comprise the bulk of the new core, has less aluminum holding it together and a higher density of uranium, causing a more concentrated production of heat and a greater risk that the fuel will melt and cause an accident.
According to the Institute's letter, the high-density, high-enriched uranium silicide fuel "needs to be tested under prototypic conditions of fission rate, fission density, and temperature. From a technical standpoint, it is impossible for a licensing authority to certify the safety of a proposed reactor until such tests are conducted." Local Bavarian groups that had intervened unsuccessfully to block the granting of construction licenses for the FRM-II also called for complete testing of the FRM-II fuel.
NCI pointed out that all of the safety and security concerns could be addressed by redesigning the FRM-II to use previously tested, non-weapons-usable fuel of low-enriched uranium. The Institute also cited a study released late last year by scientists at the U.S. Argonne National Laboratory, which reports that such a redesigned reactor could achieve the same experimental performance relying on previously tested, low-enriched fuel as the Garching scientists seek to achieve with their untested, weapons-grade fuel.
The Institute's Leventhal and Kuperman, who released NCI's letter at a press conference in Munich, concluded with this advice to the Bavarian environmental authority: "Minister Goppel can avert the dangers of nuclear proliferation, nuclear terrorism, and catastrophic accident -- while still preserving the TU-M's research goals -- with a single step. He should direct the Garching scientists to redesign their reactor to use previously tested, non-weapons-usable fuel of low-enriched uranium. Any other decision would unnecessarily imperil both local residents and the global community at large."
[The letter from NCI to Minister Goppel is attached, and other referenced materials are available upon request.]
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