Getting Bomb-Grade Uranium Out of Civilian Hands

February 1, 2010

Getting Bomb-Grade Uranium Out of Civilian Hands: Toward the Nuclear Security Summit

On February 1, 2010, the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) and the Royal Embassy of Norway hosted a panel discussion on nuclear security at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. The meeting was well attended by representatives of foreign embassies to the United States, the U.S. government, academics, and non-governmental organizations.


The panel was introduced by Ambassador of Norway to the United States H.E. Wegger Chr. Strømmen, who noted Norway’s role in promoting highly enriched uranium (HEU) minimization over the past half decade, from the introduction of a Working Paper on the subject at the 2005 Review Conference to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the hosting of an international symposium on Minimization of Highly Enriched Uranium in the Civilian Nuclear Sector in June 2006, to support for reactor conversion projects in developing regions and research on policy measures to promote HEU minimization. He noted the 70 metric tons in civil use today, as well as the expert consensus that HEU is not needed to conduct research or to produce medical isotopes or electricity. Mentioning the hesitation some countries have shown to support HEU minimization, he argued that minimizing HEU does not in any way restrict the right to peaceful use under the NPT, whereas keeping the material for an unknown purpose could cast doubt on commitments to nonproliferation and nuclear security. Finally, Ambassador Strømmen touched on the topic of military materials, noting that “a drastic reduction of all superfluous, excess stockpiles of weapons usable materials, be [they] in the military or civilian sector” is needed, and is the message that Norway will bring to the Nuclear Security Summit in April and to the NPT Review Conference in May. Citing a variety of programs, such as research reactor conversion, that must succeed in order to eliminate HEU use, he concluded that both civil and military HEU had to be minimized if we are to reach the goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

Presentations by Panel Speakers

The Threat Posed by HEU and Legislation to Reduce Bomb-Grade Uranium Commerce

The first speaker on the panel was Dr. Alan Kuperman, an Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Director of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Program at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Kuperman described the threat posed by civilian HEU, as well as the role of past and pending legislation in reducing HEU commerce. In explaining the threat, Dr. Kuperman noted that there is no difference between the HEU used in research reactors and the fuel needed for an atom bomb – they are one and the same. He next turned to the history of HEU exports, noting that the United States was, in the 1960s, exporting some 2-3 tons of this material each year (though only a few dozen kilograms are needed for a weapon). However, the dangers of these exports were finally realized, leading to the development of new technologies that permit the use of low-enriched uranium (LEU) — which cannot be used to fuel a nuclear explosive. This technological development was linked to a legislative imperative to reduce HEU use, initiated by the 1992 U.S. Energy Policy Act restricting HEU exports to facilities that had promised to convert once the necessary LEU fuel was available. The 1992 law led to a dramatic decline in U.S. HEU exports. However, a new Energy Policy Act in 2005 rescinded the restrictions, raising the real possibility that U.S. HEU exports could increase.

A related issue of critical importance to people around the world is the availability of radioisotopes for medical treatments. Since one of the most widely used such isotopes, Tc-99m, is most commonly produced using a process that employs HEU, efforts to ensure the availability of Tc99m and endeavors to reduce the threat posed by HEU have become inextricably linked. Since new facilities are clearly needed to ensure production of this critical material, and expert studies, including a U.S. National Academies of Sciences study “Medical Isotope Production without Highly Enriched Uranium,” have found that these new facilities need not employ HEU, it is clearly time for the United States and others to support the establishment of new production facilities that do not use HEU. Dr. Kuperman provided an update on legislation currently under consideration in the U.S. Congress, the American Medical Isotopes Production Act of 2009, which would halt HEU exports for isotopes within 7 to 11 years (with an HEU export waiver to avoid isotope shortages, should this unlikely situation arise), promote conversion to LEU, and provide $163 million over five years to develop domestic isotope production without HEU in the United States. To ensure that the end of U.S. HEU exports does not lead foreign isotope producers to purchase HEU from other countries such as Russia, Dr. Kuperman persuasively argued that along with the American Medical Isotopes Production Act two other measures should be considered: A ban on U.S. purchases of HEU-produced isotopes, effective when the Secretary of Energy certifies that there is an adequate supply of LEU-produced isotopes; and/or a tariff on import of HEU-produced isotopes.

Recommendations of the Fissile Material Working Group (FMWG)

The next speaker on Monday’s panel was Mr. Kenneth Luongo, President of the Partnership for Global Security. Mr. Luongo presented the recommendations of the Fissile Material Working Group(FMWG) — a group of over 40 U.S. issue experts, academics, and advocates devoted to meeting the policy priority of preventing nuclear terrorism and gave some details on the group’s plan to hold an NGO Nuclear Security Summit just before the official governmental summit hosted by President Barack Obama in Washington on April 12-13, 2010. The NGO summit has invited a wide range of U.S. and international experts, and expects over 200 individuals from 40 countries to participate.

Mr. Luongo briefly explained the FMWG’s key recommendations on nuclear security that were sent to the U.S. administration last fall. They include:

  1. The launch of a new “Next-Generation Nuclear Security Initiative” that includes a new global nuclear material security roadmap, a plan for broader international scientific cooperation to prevent nuclear theft and terrorism, and a political and technical action plan to achieve the four year goal.
  2. Acceleration of efforts to secure and eliminate HEU, plutonium, and nuclear weapon stockpiles worldwide.
  3. Implementation of an HEU minimization policy by including in the policy HEU use in all of its manifestations and creation of a timetable for a ban on the civil use of HEU.
  4. Obtaining domestic and international funding for removing and securing all vulnerable nuclear materials in four years.
  5. Extending and expanding the G-8 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction for another 10 years, and reconfiguring it to have a global focus.

Noting that the new Department of Energy budget would only come out on the afternoon of February 1, Mr. Luongo registered his strong hope that funding for HEU minimization and related activities would be increased—since it had actually decreased the previous year. (It should be noted that his wishes have in fact been realized.) Finally, Mr. Luongo registered his concern that the official Nuclear Security Summit may not be able to take the decisions and set the course for the implementation of the tasks really needed to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism. Thus, the involvement of other actors (such as at the NGO summit) remains critical to realizing threat reduction goals.

Building an International Norm to Minimize HEU

The final presentation on the panel was made by Cristina Hansell, Director of the Newly Independent States Nonproliferation Program (NIS), and Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, nuclear research scientist, both from the Monterey Institute’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS). They focused on the need for an international norm to minimize HEU and for the development and spread of best practices for managing and securing HEU.

In explaining the relevance of HEU minimization today, Ms. Hansell noted that the effort was crucial not only in the fight to combat nuclear terrorism, but also to strengthen nonproliferation efforts and prepare the conditions needed for a stable nuclear-free world. She noted that the nonproliferation benefits of HEU minimization have been recognized for many years, and were noted in the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation report of 1980 and the 2000 NPT Review Conference Final Document. Despite technical progress in making HEU minimization possible, she argued that the actual elimination of HEU use in the civilian sphere requires political measures. While noting the progress achieved by the Global Threat Reduction Initiative’s programs to convert reactors, remove HEU materials from those facilities, and secure HEU, these remains far too much HEU in the civil sector. Moreover, little of this material is at sites with military-level security, despite its potential military uses.

Addressing current security recommendations in particular, Dr. Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress summarized his recent work reevaluating the concept of “self-protection” — the idea that high enough levels of radioactivity may prevent a person from stealing and/or manipulating certain nuclear material. He noted that the current standard [1 Gy/hour (100 rad/hr) at one meter] was chiefly a psychological deterrent, as it would not incapacitate a would-be miscreant. Instead, he suggested a consideration of 10 Gy/hr. While the latter level would not immediately incapacitate, in combination with measures to increase the time needed to steal nuclear material as well as means to reduce response time, 10 Gy could be a useful level to consider.

Furthermore, Dr. Dalnoki-Veress noted that facilities typically do not measure the radioactivity of irradiated materials. However, he has done preliminary studies looking at the length of time during which irradiated fuel assemblies sustain the 10 Gy/hr level, and noted that for a large range of research reactor power densities the dose is lower than 10 Gy/hr after 5 months of decay. This would imply that a security rule that only considers materials to be “self-protecting” for five months would be prudent—after this amount of time, additional security should be required. Ms. Hansell noted that the 10 Gy/hr criterion may not be an appropriate criterion on its own but with added security practices aimed at extending exposure times a would-be thief would be incapacitated before irradiated materials would be stolen.The CNS talk concluded with a discussion of ways to codify best practices in the area of nuclear security. For over a year, the IAEA and its member states have been working on the latest revision (number five) of the INFCIRC 225 Physical Protection Guidelines, which provides broad recommendations for member states. Ms. Hansell advocated states push for the conclusion of this revision, which should include a reexamination of the “self-protection” concept. She also noted the importance of state ratification of the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM) amendment, which brings the provisions of the convention into force inside each member state (currently, the provisions are only applicable to nuclear materials in transit). However, this measure provides broad recommendations, and not detailed explications of best practices in use today. Furthermore, none of these measures includes either a commitment to HEU minimization, or a promise to develop an HEU management strategy. Ms. Hansell noted that under the IAEA Plutonium Guidelines, states are supposed to publish their strategies for the management of that material—a similar measure is needed for HEU.

Drafting a HEU Code of Conduct

Thus, CNS experts facilitated the drafting of a HEU Code of Conduct — a voluntary measure to which states and other interested parties (such as nuclear companies, universities, etc.) might commit, that specifies best security and management practices as well as a commitment to the eventual elimination of HEU. Ms. Hansell provided copies of the draft, as well as a set of answers to commonly asked questions about the code. She noted that several physicians’ associations have already adopted resolutions that make the sort of commitments included in the HEU Code, and have indeed called for the development of such a code.

The draft code includes the following commitments:

  • To eliminate or convert installations from HEU to LEU as soon as technically feasible
  • Ending transfers of HEU except on an interim basis to facilities actively pursuing conversion to LEU
  • Maintaining security at levels concomitant with the risks
  • Undertaking activities help to make conversion possible
  • Promising to develop and maintain a strategy for the management and eventual elimination of HEU, to ensure the safe and secure use, storage and eventual elimination of the material

Q&A and Future Endeavors

Video: Q&A Session

In the next several months, CNS intends to continue its efforts to educate policymakers and the public on the need to support the minimization and eventual elimination of HEU. CNS experts will be supporting such efforts at the NGO Nuclear Security Summit, at the NPT Review Conference in May, at industry and expert groups, and in national capitals. They also intend to publish several papers on detailed findings related to HEU minimization. CNS has also recently published a book available from Routledge, The Global Politics of Combating Nuclear Terrorism: A Supply-Side Approach, with chapters examining the various uses for HEU and possible alternatives; the threat posed by HEU; the economic, political and strategic obstacles to international efforts to end the use of HEU for commercial and research purposes; as well as new national and international measures that should be taken to further the elimination of HEU.

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