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Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
Experts Oppose HEU Export Plan
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October 2016

By Alicia Sanders-Zakre

The proposed U.S. export of almost 16 pounds of weapons-grade uranium to Europe has alarmed some nuclear nonproliferation experts. In a Sept. 7 letter, more than two dozen experts urged U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to reduce the size of the proposed export consistent with past pledges by Belgium, France, and the Netherlands to phase out their use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to produce medical isotopes.

A technician works on medical isotopes at the Saint-Louis hospital in Paris on November 24, 2009. (Photo credit: Francois Guillot/AFP/Getty Images)

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous agency within the Energy Department, submitted a request to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for an export license on July 14, which was published in the Federal Register on Aug. 15. If approved, 7.2 kilograms of 93.2 percent-enriched uranium-235 metal would be exported to France and fabricated in the Netherlands into “targets” to be used to produce medical isotopes at the Institute for Radioelements in Belgium. The existence of HEU, particularly away from heavily secured military facilities, raises security concerns because 25 kilograms of uranium enriched above 90 percent is generally recognized as the quantity necessary for a nuclear bomb. 

In their letter, the nuclear experts cited the risk of nuclear terrorism and said the proposed export violates the commitment made by the United States, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands at the 2012 nuclear security summit to convert European production of medical isotopes to non-HEU-based processes by 2015. The export would allow for continued use of HEU at the Institute for Radioelements past 2017. Such a violation, the writers said, could weaken the international norm to minimize HEU production and undermine other commitments made at the nuclear security summits dating back to 2010. 

The four countries stated that they would favor minimizing HEU use but not at the risk of a medical isotope shortage. Belgium, France, and the Netherlands have a responsibility to produce a steady supply of medical isotopes “for the benefit of the international medical community and patients worldwide,” the four countries said in a March 2012 statement. In order to meet public demand for medical isotopes, HEU is still “indispensable” because reactors are in the process of being converted to non-HEU fuel and targets, according to a U.S.-European Union statement on March 31.

The timing for a commission decision is not known.