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CONTACT: Steven Dolley

Monday, May 13, 1996


The Nuclear Control Institute hailed as a "major victory in the struggle to prevent nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism" today's record of decision by the Department of Energy to take back, and avoid reprocessing, about 20 metric tons of bomb-grade uranium fuel from overseas research reactors.

"Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary has proven herself to be the Clinton Administration's champion nuclear non-proliferator by refusing to cave in to political pressure to keep this U.S.-origin, bomb-grade fuel out of the United States or to reprocess it as a condition of allowing it back in," said Paul Leventhal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI). The Institute is a research and advocacy center concentrating on nuclear-proliferation problems.

"By agreeing to take back this fuel and to store and dispose of it safely and securely," Leventhal said, "the Energy Department will help sharply reduce world commerce in bomb-grade uranium and to breathe new life into U.S. leadership to eliminate such commerce."

Leventhal called on Secretary of State Christopher to follow O'Leary's lead by quashing a French-German-Russian plan to import Russian bomb-grade uranium fuel into Europe and thereby circumvent a U.S. embargo on such commerce.

Had the U.S. reneged on a long-standing commitment to take back this fuel, many overseas reactor operators would have had their fuel reprocessed at a British plant in Dounreay, Scotland. The recovered HEU would have been returned to commerce, perpetuating the proliferation and terrorism risks. The 20-year U.S. effort to convert research reactors to non-weapon-usable fuels under the Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) program also would have been seriously jeopardized.

Leventhal also commended O'Leary's decision to defer reprocessing of this fuel and to fund the development of alternative packaging technologies to prepare the fuel for final disposal. Among the leading contenders for final disposal is the can-in-a-canister option, first proposed by NCI in late 1995. The "can-in-can" technology entails encapsulation of the spent fuel in welded stainless-steel cans, which would in turn be placed in canisters prior to filling with molten high-level radioactive waste glass at the Defense Waste Processing Facility (DWPF). The DWPF began vitrification operations last month at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and there has been one successful demonstration of can-in-a-can for plutonium disposition.

"Prospects are good that this technology will also be successfully demonstrated for bomb-grade uranium fuel over the next few years," Leventhal said. "This will obviate the need to look at the possiblity of reprocessing for health and safety reasons. Reprocessing, by converting spent fuel into highly radioactive, liquid waste, actually increases health and safety risks, as well as separating atom-bomb material."

Further information on DOE's take-back policy and the can-in-a-canister approach is available from the Nuclear Control Institute, and from its World Wide Web site (http://www.nci.org/).

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