"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
Abraham Announces Nuclear Initiative

Wade Boese

The Department of Energy is making organizational changes and boosting funding to better keep global nuclear materials from falling into hostile hands, but two key projects with Russia remain stalled.

On May 26, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced a $450 million initiative to accelerate existing programs intended to end the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) as fuel for research reactors and to retrieve all U.S.- and Russian-exported HEU, which is one of two fissile materials that can be used to build nuclear weapons (plutonium is the other).

Formally dubbed the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, the new effort also urges stepped-up action to secure other nuclear and radiological materials that could be used to make a so-called dirty bomb, a conventional explosive mixed with radioactive material.

While extolling the administration’s record on reducing the threat posed by nuclear materials worldwide, Abraham said, “[W]e would be fooling ourselves and endangering our citizens to think that these past efforts are enough.”

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has charged the Bush administration with being too lax in its approach (see page 34).

The Global Threat Reduction Initiative

In 1978 the United States launched a program to convert research reactors to operate with low-enriched uranium (LEU), which is not suitable for making nuclear weapons, instead of HEU. But budget constraints, the technical complexity of the conversion work, and reluctance by some governments to switch types of fuel have hampered the program. Only about a third of the 105 research reactors slated for conversion have been modified.

The new initiative aims essentially to convert a similar number within the next five years. It leaves open the question of when the last third of the reactors might be converted because an appropriate substitute LEU fuel is not yet available for them.

Abraham suggested June 14 that the administration’s initiative represents the most that can be done. “I know some have implied that this work can be done quicker. But the people who make those assertions are simply ignoring the realities of science,” he stated. Abraham added, “Changing a reactor core is not like changing the battery in your car.”

The initiative further calls for picking up the pace of a 1996 program to retrieve about 20,000 kilograms of U.S.-origin enriched uranium, including roughly 5,000 kilograms of HEU, that have been exported to 41 countries. About 1,100 kilograms of HEU have been retrieved to date.

Acknowledging that the program “has had a long history of not performing as well as it should,” Abraham said that would now change. “I made it clear…that I want this job done as soon as possible,” he declared. The secretary pledged to complete the work in a decade.

As another part of the initiative, the United States finalized a May 27 agreement with Russia to assist Moscow in retrieving some 4,000 kilograms of HEU it exported to 17 countries. The goal is to finish this work by 2010.

The United States and Russia first explored repatriating Soviet and Russian HEU in the late 1990s. Operations during the Bush administration have recovered HEU from sites in Bulgaria, Libya, Romania, and Serbia. Prior to that, the United States helped remove HEU from Kazakhstan and Georgia. A research reactor in Uzbekistan is next in line.

Not all U.S.- and Russian-origin HEU is located in countries ready to return it. Iran and Pakistan are two notable examples. The United States, Russia, and the International Atomic Energy Agency are hosting an international conference this fall to discuss how to handle these more intractable situations.

In addition, the initiative commits the Energy Department to seek out any nuclear and radiological materials not covered by existing programs. “Once identified, we will secure, remove, relocate, or dispose of these materials and equipment in the quickest, safest manner possible,” the secretary stated. The Energy Department intends to pre-position equipment around the world to facilitate such missions.

A new office within the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration will manage the initiative.

Plutonium Projects Stuck in Neutral

Although seeking to speed up its efforts to reduce HEU threats, the United States is spinning its wheels when it comes to mitigating plutonium dangers. This inaction has upset some U.S. lawmakers.

At a June 15 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) questioned whether Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton was trying hard enough to overcome obstacles holding up a U.S.-Russian agreement for both countries to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium.

Urging that the program be jump-started, Domenici, who oversees funding for the Energy Department as chairman of the relevant subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, argued, “If he can’t do it, somebody ought to…be put in his place that will do it.” Agreed to in principle in September 1998 and sealed two years later, the plutonium deal has been hampered by disagreement over accountability for any accidents.

“The issue that divides Russia and the United States at this point is whether we’re going to get liability protection equivalent to that which we’ve operated under for the past 12 years or whether we’re prepared to accept a lesser liability protection,” Bolton explained at the hearing.

Bolton’s testimony failed to satisfy Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). “You’ve certainly illuminated the problems…but not really the solution,” Lugar remarked. Describing the situation as “very, very serious,” Lugar ventured that he and other senators might need to meet with the president to discuss the matter.

Lugar’s fellow Republican, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas, also had concerns with another languishing plutonium program with Russia and asked the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, to look into it. GAO reported in June that the program to shut down Russia’s final three plutonium production reactors is troubled.

Although Russia pledged in 1994 to cease operating the three reactors by 2000, it still has not done so. The deadline passed unfulfilled due to differences between Washington and Moscow over who should pay to provide nearby towns with the heat and energy that would be lost when the reactors shutdown. The Bush administration agreed in March 2003 to build one fossil-fuel facility and refurbish another to address Russian concerns.

However, GAO found widespread confusion between U.S. and Russian entities—17 total—over managing work on the replacement facilities and Russian fears about finding future employment for displaced reactor workers. GAO further noted that Energy Department officials are worried about Russia’s ultimate intentions because it has refused to reduce the amount of plutonium the three reactors produce and to add safety features in the meantime.

The projected date for when the last of the three reactors will be shut down has slipped from 2006 to 2011.