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RERTR At The Crossroads:

Success or Demise?


Paul Leventhal and Alan Kuperman

Nuclear Control Institute

September 18, 1995


In the late 1970s the international community belatedly came to the realization that the fuel used in many nuclear research reactors -- bomb-grade, highly enriched uranium -- could be stolen or diverted for nuclear weapons by nations or terrorists. Recent revelations about Iraq's "crash program" to divert such fuel from safeguarded reactors to its nuclear weapons program in 1990 demonstrate the reality of this threat.

In 1978, the international community established the Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) program. Its mission was to develop substitute fuel of higher-density, low enriched uranium (LEU), which is not suitable for weapons. As the substitute fuels were developed, existing reactors would be converted to LEU and new reactors would be designed to use LEU.

The RERTR program has proved remarkably successful, facilitating the conversion of dozens of reactors worldwide from bomb-grade to non-weapons-usable fuel and sharply reducing international commerce in HEU. However, several recent events threaten both past progress and future attainment of the program's goal of eliminating entirely international commerce in bomb-grade uranium. Unless immediate steps are taken to rectify the situation, the RERTR program may lose crucial international support and cooperation, leading to the program's demise and a resurgence in commerce in bomb-grade uranium.

Progress to Date

Of the 42 research reactors outside the United States with power of at least 1 megawatt, originally supplied HEU fuel by the U.S., 37 either have converted to LEU, are in the process of converting or have no further need for fuel -- which has enabled a sharp decline in U.S. HEU exports. Since the United States has historically been the major exporter of HEU for civilian use, and in recent years the sole exporter, this translates into a sharp reduction in total international commerce in bomb-grade uranium.

In addition, the United States has taken steps to reduce its own use of highly enriched uranium. In 1986, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission ordered the conversion of all licensed, domestic research reactors. Of the 19 such reactors, eight have already converted and another eight are in the process. [[See chart: "U.S. HEU Exports Decline Sharply"]]

More recently, the United States has entered into agreements with Russia and China to work on conversion of reactors operating in, and supplied by, these countries. The U.S. is also developing a system for production of molybdenum-99 for medical isotopes using LEU rather than HEU targets, to further reduce the need for civil HEU commerce.

The RERTR Program's Two Core Tenets

The key to the RERTR program's success has been two core tenets: universality and spent fuel return. Universality has meant three things: 1) Those reactors that can convert to existing LEU fuel must do so; 2) For remaining reactors, advanced fuel will be developed, to which they must convert when it is successfully qualified; and 3) No new reactors will be constructed to use HEU fuel. Reactor operators have been willing to convert -- and to accept the economic and performance penalties of doing so -- because the universality principle guaranteed that they would not be put at a competitive disadvantage.

The guarantee of spent fuel return (for both LEU and HEU fuel) is based on four grounds: 1) Reducing the vulnerability of spent HEU fuel to theft or diversion; 2) Abiding by longstanding U.S. commitments; 3) Inducing cooperation with the RERTR program; and 4) Avoiding an additional, perverse penalty for conversion to LEU -- i.e. losing the guarantee of spent fuel return.

Threats to the RERTR Program

Recent developments strike at the heart of these two core tenets and threaten to undermine international support for the RERTR program.

Germany's Proposed FRM-II Reactor -- Germany's proposed FRM-II would be the first research reactor in the West (with power of at least 1 megawatt) built to use bomb-grade fuel since establishment of the RERTR program, thereby undermining universality. Heretofore, only the problematic states China and Libya have violated this international moratorium. The new reactor can and should be redesigned to achieve equivalent experimental performance with LEU.

Reactors Refusing to Convert -- Several reactor operators are violating the principle of universality by refusing to convert their reactors even though suitable LEU fuel is available. Outside of the U.S., there are two: the JRC's HFR Petten and South Africa's Safari I reactors. In the U.S., there are three: the Department of Energy's Brookhaven Medical (BNL), Omega West (LANL) and Tower Shielding reactors (ORNL). Two other U.S. facilities, the High Flux Beam (BNL) and NIST reactors, have preliminarily been determined unable to convert to existing LEU fuels (see next section), but further feasibility studies are required for a final determination.

Advanced Fuel Development -- Several other reactors have not converted because suitable LEU fuel has not been developed. Outside the U.S., there are three: France's HFR and Orphee and Belgium's BR-2 reactors. In the U.S., there are six: the Department of Energy's Advanced Test (INEL), High Flux Isotope (ORNL) and High Flux Beam (BNL) reactors, the Department of Commerce's NIST reactor and the university reactors at MIT and University of Missouri - Columbia. In 1989, the United States suspended development of advanced, high-density (>4.8g/cc) LEU fuels for such high-power research reactors -- further undermining the principle of universality. The United States Department of State has recently supplied $1.5 million to immediately restart fuel development, with another $2.0 million expected to be provided during the next few months by the Department of Energy, but the primary focus appears to be for Chinese and Russian reactors. It is essential that the United States clarify that such development will include fuels for the remaining, unconvertible reactors in the U.S. and Europe, which is estimated to require approximately five years.

Spent Fuel Take-Back -- In 1986, the United States suspended the take-back of U.S.-origin spent fuel from research reactors, despite longstanding commitments. If the policy is not fully renewed in an expeditious manner, reactor operators will be forced to pay higher costs for reprocessing of their spent fuel in Europe, removing an incentive for cooperation with the RERTR program. Such reprocessing will also likely perpetuate the HEU fuel cycle. Moreover, some operators may actually be forced to continue using HEU fuel since there is no reprocessing line in Europe for LEU research reactor fuel. [[See chart: "Status of Conversions"]]


The RERTR program is one of the unsung heroes of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regimes. Since 1978, the program has made great progress in reducing HEU commerce. If the international community provides its full support, the RERTR program can within the decade fulfill its goal of eliminating entirely commerce in bomb-grade uranium. However, if such principal countries as the United States and Germany continue the recent trend of withholding their full cooperation from the program, it could soon collapse, resulting in a resurgence of HEU commerce. The RERTR program is at a historic crossroads, and only its participating members can determine which path it will follow.

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