NEWS RELEASE Contact: Tom Clements
Monday, June 14, 1999 202-822-8444
NRC HOLDS UP SHIPMENT OF BOMB-GRADE URANIUM
PUBLIC MEETING ON JUNE 16 WILL EXAMINE
IF PROPOSED EXPORT VIOLATES U.S. LAW
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) will hold a highly unusual public meeting on nuclear exports this week after delaying action on a proposed export of bomb-grade uranium to Canada. The NRC must determine whether the export would violate U.S. law.
The hearing was called in response to a petition to intervene by the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI), a Washington-based research and advocacy group which focuses on nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism issues. The NRC has previously held only two public meetings on nuclear exports one in the 1970s on India and the other involving the Philippines in the 1980s.
The hearing, open to the public and media, is scheduled for Wednesday, June 16, 1999, from 9:00 am to 10:30am, in the Conference Room at NRC headquarters, One White Flint North, Rockville, Maryland (directly across from White Flint Metro station). The hearing will bring together U.S. and Canadian government officials, Canadian industry and national laboratory representatives, as well as NCI President Paul Leventhal and Senior Policy Analyst Alan Kuperman.
NCI contends that the proposed export violates the Energy Policy Act of 1992, which sharply restricts nuclear commerce in order to reduce proliferation and terrorism risks. The provision in question, authored by now-Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), prohibits most exports of nuclear weapons-usable uranium, also known as highly-enriched uranium (HEU).
Senator Schumer, in a March 26, 1999 letter to the NRC, said that he was "alarmed" because the proposed export "seems to violate the Energy Policy Act of 1992." He said his "concern is that this proposed export will have an impact far beyond Canada. It will turn the clock back on a key element of our non-proliferation strategy." If the NRC does not implement the law fully, he warned, he "may be forced to consider legislation that would simply terminate further HEU exports."
The Canadian companies Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) and MDS Nordion are seeking an export of 130 kilograms of HEU in order to make radioisotopes for medical use in Canada and the United States. The reactors in which the material would be irradiated are two newly constructed MAPLE reactors located at the AECLs Chalk River nuclear research facility. Medical isotopes are currently produced by bombarding HEU "targets" with neutrons in AECLs NRU reactor but that aging facility is scheduled for closure.
NCI does not oppose production of medical isotopes but contends they can be produced with non-weapons-usable material, known as low-enriched uranium (LEU). If stolen or diverted, 130 kilograms of HEU is sufficient for at least five Hiroshima-type atom bombs
The goal of the 1992 Schumer Amendment, in part, was to persuade foreign isotope producers to change reliance on bomb-grade uranium to low-enriched uranium. The Schumer Amendment bars exports of bomb-grade uranium for use as targets or as fuel to any reactor able to use the low-enriched alternative. It permits HEU exports only if the United States and the foreign user are actively pursuing a switch to LEU.
NCI contends that the Canadian companies originally attempted to evade U.S. law by falsely claiming they could not convert to low-enriched uranium. After the NRC expressed its concerns this spring, the Canadian companies switched strategies, claiming they plan to convert to LEU but still need U.S. bomb-grade uranium for at least the first five years of operation.
NCI is urging the NRC to enforce the law by denying the proposed bomb-grade uranium export unless the Canadians demonstrate an ongoing commitment to convert to LEU expeditiously. NCI also is urging the Commission not to approve any more than a one-year export of bomb-grade uranium at a time, as opposed to the Canadian request for advance approval of five years worth of HEU exports. NCI has argued that if any HEU is to be exported to Canada, annual reviews are needed to verify compliance of the Canadian companies with the Schumer Amendment requirements for conversion to low-enriched uranium.
Note to Editors: Senator Schumers March 26 letter and NCI filings with the NRC are available on request.
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