The Oslo Symposium: On the Road to HEU Minimization

Cristina Chuen
William C. Potter
August 28, 2006

An increasing number of countries recognize the risks associated with the civilian use, storage, and commerce in highly enriched uranium (HEU), particularly its potential for use in a terrorist weapon. Proposals to severely constrain, if not eliminate, civilian use of HEU have been made in a variety of settings, including language put forward by Norway and three other countries at the 2005 NPT Review Conference and an aborted effort to introduce a resolution at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) General Conference in September 2005. Indeed, more than 100 countries are involved in HEU minimization programs at the present time.[1] [For more information on HEU, its uses, and efforts to date to reduce HEU use, please see the Civilian HEU Reduction and Elimination database.

In order to promote an exchange of views on political and technical issues in this area, the Norwegian government, in cooperation with the IAEA, hosted an international symposium on minimization of HEU in the civilian nuclear sector on June 17-20, 2006. The symposium, which attracted a total of approximately 120 participants from 40 states, consisted of a two-day technical workshop followed by two days of policy meetings. The symposium was designed to establish an international consensus on technical issues related to the replacement of HEU with LEU for various civilian uses, as well as to begin to chart the way forward for international efforts to reduce the civilian use of HEU.

The technical workshop indeed produced a greater degree of consensus than was achieved at prior nuclear industry gatherings on the subject, and concluded that conversion is possible in most instances, that no future needs for HEU have been identified, and that current conversion programs have been quite successful. [See the official workshop report.] Policymakers, on the other hand, were unable to agree on a clear path forward during the second portion of the symposium, although they acknowledged the terrorism threat posed by HEU and the desirability of conversion.

The Scope of the Problem

The workshop presentations began with an overview of basic facts about HEU worldwide. Pablo Adelfang of the IAEA noted that global HEU stockpiles (of both military and civilian material) contained enough fissile material for the production of 3,500 crude nuclear weapons. Further, he stated that creating a nuclear weapon from HEU is technically easier than building a plutonium weapon, that testing such a device would not be necessary, and that current technology is unlikely to detect a shielded nuclear device on a truck or boat.

Participants agreed that HEU poses a terrorism threat, but initially debated the relative risk posed by HEU and plutonium. The technical workshop chairman, José Goldemberg of Brazil, for example, noted that conversion of isotope production from HEU to LEU targets would lead to 24 times more plutonium. Argonne National Laboratory’s George Vandegrift, however, responded by pointing out that it is a lot harder to purify plutonium and that in fact one would “have to steal all the world’s LEU target waste to get 1 kg of plutonium.” There was also broad technical agreement that using plutonium to build a bomb is technically far more difficult than building a crude nuclear device using HEU.

Unfortunately, civilian facilities such as research reactors have stocks of fresh and spent fuel on site that are an attractive target for thieves and terrorists seeking access to access to weapons-usable nuclear materials. Although in the past spent HEU fuel has generally been considered to be “self-protecting” (i.e., irradiation of the fuel results in high levels of gamma radiation that make it dangerous to handle) the experts at the technical seminar noted that this radiation barrier and deterrent to theft diminishes significantly over time. In fact, Dr. Adelfang noted that a terrorist could survive up to a month handling the spent fuel recently repatriated from Uzbekistan as it was no longer “self-protecting.” Furthermore, certain types of research reactors, such as low-powered critical and sub-critical assemblies, often contain particularly large amounts of HEU that is only very lightly irradiated, and thus can be “safely” handled by would-be thieves.

Another dimension of the HEU problem discussed by Princeton Professor Frank von Hippel, was the insufficient attention paid to naval propulsion reactors such as Russia’s nuclear-powered icebreakers. Von Hippel pointed out that most HEU-fueled critical facilities are no longer needed because neutronics codes for standard reactor types are well tested, and computers are now fast enough to make detailed virtual simulations of the reactor. He suggested that only a few centralized facilities are really needed to do new types of experiments, noting that such consolidation has already largely occurred in Europe.

Physical Protection of HEU in Civilian Use

Several participants discussed the physical protection requirements for HEU. It was suggested that global security guidelines would be useful. It also was observed that improving security to the necessary levels could be far more expensive than decommissioning or converting reactors to use low enriched uranium. For example, in the United States security costs at the eight national labs increased by $500 million per year since September 11, 2001, leading to a decision to convert some reactors to LEU to cut costs. Professor von Hippel noted that HEU fuel was removed from the Sandia Pulse Reactor in lieu of the security upgrades that would otherwise have been necessary. Other countries too have experienced increased security costs: physical protection expenditures at Australia’s new OPAL reactor increased $25-30 million post-September 11, according to Dr. Ron Cameron of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. Professor Goldemberg remarked that it would really be impossible to achieve necessary security levels at universities possessing HEU-fueled research reactors –making conversion all the more important.

Shifting from the Use of HEU to LEU

Much of the remainder of the technical seminar consisted of reports on specific reactors and activities at these facilities. There were reports on successful conversions of research reactors and accelerator-driven systems in Belarus, CanadaChile, the Czech Republic, Ghana, the Netherlands, Romania, and South Africa; on the experience in designing new reactors for use in Argentina and France, and on the efforts by ArgentinaAustralia, and Indonesia to utilize LEU targets for radioisotope production. US representatives also presented the results of efforts to convert research reactors in the United States, stating that Washington is committed to convert all of its domestic research reactors to LEU by 2014.

The experts concluded that conversion of nearly all facilities that use HEU is possible. Many types of reactors have already been converted with available fuel. Some other types of reactors, however, require the development of new, high-density LEU fuels in order to make conversion possible. Joint research into the development of such fuels is taking place under the auspices of the Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) Program. Plans call for the report on fuel development results to be submitted to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission for review in early 2010, so that its use in US non-power reactors can be approved by the end of 2010. The only research reactor for which conversion appears to be a truly difficult technical issue is the FRM-II reactor in Germany. However, German researchers are exploring ways to at least lower the level of enrichment used at the facility. When the FRM-II obtained its operating license in June 2003, there was a parallel conversion agreement requiring the reactor to begin using 50% or lower enriched fuel by December 31, 2010. This means that new fuel will have to be ready and licensed before the new high density fuels being developed under the RERTR program are licensed. The German program, however, intends to begin licensing new “medium-enriched” fuel in 2009.

Another research reactor that cannot yet use LEU fuel is France’s new Jules Horowitz 100MW Material Testing Reactor, which is due to start operations in 2014. Unlike the FRM-II, the Horowitz was designed to use LEU fuel. However, development of the new high-density LEU fuel that the Horowitz needs has been delayed; therefore, the reactor is likely to start operations using 27% enriched fuel for a limited period, until the high-density LEU fuel is qualified. Horowitz program director Daniel Iracane noted that France is committed to fueling the reactor with LEU as soon as technically feasible, that they are working on development of high-density UMo fuel, and that they do believe the fuel will eventually be successful.

The issue of converting production of medical isotopes from HEU to LEU was addressed in several presentations, including one by Argonne National Laboratory’s Vandegrift that presented the “facts and myths” about production of Molybdenum-99 with HEU and LEU targets. His conclusion was that operating costs should be the same or less for LEU processing, but that conversion from HEU itself would be a significant cost to current producers. Indeed, there were several examples of reduced isotope production costs (including significant savings due to reduction of wastes when LEU-foil targets are used[2]) noted at the seminar, and it was generally agreed that new producers should use LEU targets. However, big isotope producing countries (e.g., Canada and South Africa) emphasized the need to avoid disruption of supplies and also suggested that converting their facilities was bound to run into unforeseen problems. Nevertheless, the final outcome of the discussion was general agreement that at some point in the future conversion was likely.

Several presentations looked at future nuclear research and whether HEU might be necessary for new applications. Dr. Massimo Salvatores, scientific advisor to Argonne National Laboratory and to the Director of the Nuclear Energy Division of the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), presented a study on requirements for fast reactor development. The study “identified little or no incentive to make use of enriched uranium (especially HEU)” instead of plutonium in future fast reactors. Indeed, in answer to a broader question on future nuclear power plants, he noted that no HEU-fuelled reactors were being considered under the IAEA INPRO program, since HEU fuel does not resolve questions about sustainability, waste minimization, and nonproliferation risk. However, he did note that developing the fuel for future fast reactors entails testing in critical assemblies. At present, the European facility being used for this purpose, the Masurca assembly at Cadarache, employs both plutonium and, due to an insufficient supply of plutonium at the site, HEU. Salvatores argued that the large critical experiments that are needed could all be carried out at Cadarache, which is already shared by the European countries. Von Hippel agreed that many critical assemblies are obsolete, and most could be decommissioned without a negative economic or scientific impact. He suggested need-based planning should be applied, and pointed out that decommissioning costs for critical assemblies are much less than those for research reactors, and can even generate funds if the HEU is sold for the purpose of down-blending for power reactor fuel.

In the final analysis, all of the technical experts agreed that reactors need to be examined on a case by case basis. Charles Piani, senior manager of South Africa’s SAFARI-1 research reactor, noted that many research reactors can continue to fulfill their functions even with slightly reduced neutron flux. The presentation by Dr. Cameron reinforced this point. He observed that despite some flux penalties from using currently available LEU fuel in the Australian OPAL reactor scheduled to begin operation next year, it will be a “world class neutron beam research center,” as all parts of the reactor have been optimized. However, as Nikolay Arkhangelsky of the Russian Atomic Energy Agency observed, one needs political will to start conversion. Piani pointed out that South Africa, understanding the security threats, had in fact really converted for political reasons, saying they “want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.” It was also noted that some countries did not make HEU a conscious choice in the first place. Marin Ciocanescu, senior researcher at the Institute for Nuclear Research in Pitesti, Romania noted that the reactor there was initially fueled with HEU due to limited knowledge. In fact, he observed, HEU is more expensive. However, Romania needed to see that the LEU fuel had been proven internationally, with good performance, before they could adopt it. Conversion of the Pitesti reactor was finally completed earlier this year.

In discussing the situation in Russia, Arkhangelsky noted that operators often see conversion as the introduction of problems and new costs. However, he observed that the situation in Russia appeared to be changing. Although he wondered whether there might not be some future use for certain HEU-based reactors that has yet to be discovered, and opined that although very high power reactors like Russia’s SM or PIK were not likely to be converted any time soon, the “normal practice” for future Russian medium-level flux reactors would be to use LEU fuel. As for conversion, he noted that one cannot generalize on convertibility by class of research. This is particularly true in Russia, where each reactor is unique. A study of each reactor would be needed to determine its best use, convertibility, etc. Arkhangelsky did identify one important political reason for beginning such an assessment, noting that Russia now supplies LEU fuel for foreign reactors, and might be called upon to explain why it was developing LEU fuel for others’ reactors but not using it at home. Indeed, Russia’s recent announcement that it intends to use LEU fuel in its new floating power reactors, originally designed to use HEU fuel, suggests that there has been recognition of the need to shift away from HEU use.

Political Symposium

The two-day political component of the international symposium, as noted in the Chairs’ Summary, focused on existing national practices with regard to HEU uses, and discussed future directions for minimization. Attention was also given to the role of HEU minimization in the larger proliferation and disarmament context, existing bilateral and international cooperative programs and projects, and the contribution of the IAEA in this respect. It began with addresses by Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei (in the latter case, read by the IAEA’s Vilmos Cserveny). Foreign Minister Støre’s presentation emphasized the growing risks of nuclear terrorism and the need to overcome the current stalemate in disarmament and nonproliferation. In particular, he called attention to the need to find common ground, and he explained how the recent Norwegian-led Seven Country Initiative (involving Norway, Australia, Chile, Indonesia, Romania, South Africa, and the United Kingdom) was designed to identify common principles and priorities in strengthening the three pillars of the NPT. He singled out the initiative to minimize HEU in the civilian sector as both an important means to combat nuclear terrorism and as a target of opportunity to break the current disarmament deadlock. This view was echoed by Director General ElBaradei, who welcomed the Norwegian HEU minimization initiative and called for global action with a “sense of urgency” to minimize and eventually eliminate the civilian use of HEU.

While most participants acknowledged that HEU minimization was a desirable objective, views diverged as to the relative emphasis that should be given to civilian and military programs and the wisdom of linking an initiative to reduce HEU in the civilian nuclear sector to broader nonproliferation and disarmament goals. Although no one directly challenged the remarks of Foreign Minister Støre and Director General ElBaradei regarding the urgency of HEU minimization, given the current risk of nuclear terrorism, some cautioned against pursuing civil HEU minimization without obtaining comparable progress on nuclear disarmament, including the negotiation of a fissile material cut-off treaty. Even these policymakers, however, supported national efforts to minimize HEU when taken on a voluntary, non-legally binding basis by individual states.

The most forceful statement expressing reservations about international efforts to minimize the use of HEU in the civilian sphere was voiced by Abdul Minty, Deputy Director-General of the South African Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In addition to opposing a joint Seven Nation statement in support of HEU minimization that was planned in advance of the symposium, Mr. Minty took exception to the widely shared view among experts that HEU was more dangerous than radioactive sources and deserving of more urgent attention. He argued that “WMD terrorism should not be a pretext for removing rights,” asserting that efforts to promote HEU minimization could undermine the “inalienable right” of NPT states parties to peaceful nuclear use, and would amount to “disarming the disarmed.” Moreover, he maintained that the most effective means to achieve enhanced security over fissile materials stocks was through the expansion of IAEA safeguards. According to Mr. Minty, priority should be given to promoting nuclear weapons disarmament and peaceful nuclear use. To the extent that one sought to minimize the use of civil HEU, it should be linked to “the HEU declared as excess in the military stockpiles of the weapons states,” and should take place in tandem with the reduction of plutonium, tritium, and radioactive materials. It should be noted that for some time South Africa has emphasized the need for nuclear weapons states (NWS) to declare weapons material excess and put it under IAEA safeguards. While the United States and Russia have done this with some of their military HEU, other NWS, such as the United Kingdom, have not declared any HEU excess to date (the United Kingdom has reserved all of its military HEU for use in naval propulsion). Given South Africa’s insistence on linkage, it is possible that some progress in this sphere could induce Pretoria, and other capitals concerned about the lack of disarmament progress in NWS, to look more kindly on the current effort.

Mr. Minty’s remarks elicited a lively and extended debate, and a number of his assertions were challenged. In particular, it was pointed out that nothing in the HEU minimization initiative articulated by Norway restricts fuel cycle technology development or commerce or infringes on NPT Article 4 rights. Indeed, Norwegian Minister Counselor Kjetil Paulsen observed that new restrictions on HEU could facilitate, rather than restrict, the use of nuclear technology as reduced risk is good for business. Several parties noted that not only was the initiative non-discriminatory in its application to nuclear weapons and non-nuclear weapons states, but rather than “disarming the disarmed” it would have the greatest impact on the nuclear weapons states as they possessed the largest quantities of HEU in the civilian sector. Indeed, among the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) states, only South Africa retains a large amount of HEU–remnants of its former weapons program–and it alone among the NAM states would be affected by minimization of civilian HEU stocks, use, and commerce. It also was noted that while expanding the application of IAEA safeguards was a very desirable objective from the standpoint of nonproliferation, one should not confuse safeguards with physical protection as safeguards do not directly impact upon the security of fissile material.

Although several representatives from the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) states spoke in support of Mr. Minty’s views, NAM has never formally considered the issue of HEU minimization and has not adopted a common position with respect to the subject. Neither South Africa nor NAM as a political grouping, for example, chose to oppose the Norwegian initiative when it was first broached in Main Committee III at the 2005 NPT Review Conference and several NAM members spoke positively about the Norwegian imitative at the Oslo symposium

A number of speakers at the symposium observed that the threat of nuclear terrorism was very different from the traditional threat of proliferation, and that the NPT was not designed to address the dangers posed by non-state actors. Speaking from the floor, Ambassador Liviu Bota of Romania noted that he had heard similar arguments in favor of linkage to disarmament issues 20 years ago–and had made them himself at the time–but given the urgency of today’s terrorism threats, it was important to make headway without linking all issues together. Minister Counselor Paulsen also spoke to this issue, saying that it was important not to allow all good initiatives to be taken hostage to other goals, pointing out that the FMCT process itself had been taken hostage to other issues, and that there was little forward momentum in the FMCT process at present. Instead, he called for policymakers to consider the HEU minimization initiative on its own merits. In this regard, another participant observed that since civil use of HEU is generally unnecessary, as agreed at the technical workshop, it would seem to make sense for the international community to reduce the availability of the material terrorists would find most attractive for use in fashioning a crude but real nuclear explosive device (something more difficult to accomplish with plutonium).

Several speakers emphasized the global nature of the dangers of terrorism in general and nuclear terrorism in particular. As Andrew Bienawski of the US Department of Energy noted, “terrorism…afflicts all countries, whether it takes place in Russia, Indonesia, the United Kingdom, Sri Lanka, or the United States.” A nuclear terrorist incident anywhere is apt to have a significant impact everywhere. As Mikhail Kondratenkov of the Russian Foreign Ministry observed, when it comes to preventing nuclear terrorism, it does not matter if a state is a nuclear weapons state or a non-nuclear-weapons state. Yukiya Amano, Japan’s Ambassador to International Organization in Vienna, drew a similar conclusion in his remarks, which argued strongly for replacing HEU with low enriched uranium fuel globally. The process of conversion, he noted, had nearly been completed in Japan. France’s Olivier Caron, in turn, noted that the initiative was really dealing with the issue of nuclear security, not nonproliferation or disarmament, and called for giving the IAEA more tools to facilitate conversion.

A number of presentations identified possible ways to move the process forward. Laura Holgate, Vice President of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, encouraged the creation of a global norm delegitimizing civil HEU possession and use, noting that without such a norm, arguments about convenience, economic impact, and a misplaced sense of prestige would continue to thwart efforts to reduce the threats. She also called for a global inventory and threat assessment, since there is no consolidated inventory of locations and quantities of HEU to guide decisions about near-term security upgrades or medium-term conversion, shutdown, and removal options. In addition, she proposed the creation of regional research centers of excellence to consolidate HEU-based research, and the securing of all HEU to world-class standards. Another speaker, Lars Van Dassen, deputy head of the International Cooperation Program at the Swedish Nuclear Inspectorate, proposed the creation of an international code of conduct against the production, trade, and use of civilian HEU.

While the majority of speakers, including a number of representatives from NAM and other non-nuclear weapons states, spoke in favor of HEU minimization in the civilian nuclear sector, it was apparent that one could not reach consensus on the topic at the political segment of the symposium. As such, the conference chairs’ summary chose not to call for specific new international measures to accomplish HEU minimization, but held out the prospect for further action at international fora in the future, including the IAEA.

Given the wide divergence of views expressed during the political portion of the Oslo symposium and the need to engage in further consultations in order to build broader support for HEU minimization–especially among NAM states–it is unlikely that Norway or any other country will present a new resolution on the subject at the next General Conference of the IAEA in September 2006. It is probable, however, that a number of NPT states parties will introduce statements and/or working papers on the subject of HEU minimization as an approach to combat nuclear terrorism at the 2007 Preparatory Committee session of the 2010 NPT Review Conference. It also is conceivable that efforts will be undertaken to pursue the objective of eliminating the civil use of HEU by means of a voluntary code of conduct.

The authors would like to thank the Carnegie Corporation of New York, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Nuclear Threat Initiative, Ploughshares Fund, and Saga Foundation for their support of CNS research on civilian HEU reduction as a means to combat nuclear terrorism.

[1] Statement by Andrew Bieniawski, US Department of Energy, at the Oslo Symposium, June 19, 2006.
[2] It was noted that LEU targets result in five times more uranium oxide wastes, but that storage and disposal are based on criticality, so LEU waste can be packed tighter–resulting in a waste disposal facility of similar size despite the increased waste volume.

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