NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION IMPOSES STRICT CONDITIONS
ON EXPORT OF BOMB-GRADE FUEL TO EUROPEAN COMMUNITY REACTOR
Embraces NCI's Proposals in Culmination
Of Nine-Year Fight to Win Reactor's
Conversion to Non-Weapons Fuel
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE CONTACT: Alan Kuperman
Tuesday, September 5, 2000 202-822-8444
WASHINGTON--- The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has imposed strict conditions proposed by the Nuclear Control Institute (NCI) on an export of bomb-grade uranium fuel to a European Community nuclear research reactor in The Netherlands.
The conditions were among those proposed by the Nuclear Control Institute, which filed a petition in 1991 seeking to block further exports of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to a large research reactor in Petten, the Netherlands, until the reactor operator agreed to switch to a low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel unsuitable for weapons. NCI's position was supported the following year by enactment of an American law, the Schumer Amendment to the Energy Policy Act of 1992, which prohibited bomb-grade exports to research reactors except on an interim basis prior to conversion to LEU. NCI's petition and the new law held up NRC consideration of the export license for nine years.
The need for removing bomb-grade fuel from the isolated Petten site on the North Sea coast was dramatically demonstrated by Dutch Marines in 1988, when they staged a mock attack and reached the fuel vault in seven minutes, well before the local constabulary could respond. The European Community, however, resisted conversion of the Petten reactor, despite a U.S.-led, international initiative to convert research reactors from bomb-grade to non-weapons usable fuel. After enactment of the Schumer Amendment, U.S. exports of highly enriched uranium dropped from about 300 kilograms a year, equivalent to at least dozen nuclear weapons, to near zero. The United States is the principal western supplier of this fuel and exported as much as three tons a year in the 1960s before the reactor converson program began.
Finally this year, as remaining stocks of U.S.-origin HEU dwindled in Europe, the operator of the Petten reactor, in an exchange of diplomatic notes, committed to convert to LEU and to cease use of HEU no later than 2006. NCI then lifted its opposition to the long-pending export license application, but requested that certain conditions be imposed on the license.
In granting the license on August 24, the Commission imposed several of the conditions requested by NCI to help ensure that the Petten reactor is converted to LEU expeditiously and that any excess U.S.-origin HEU is not diverted to another reactor or other unapproved uses. First, the Commission obtained detailed information from the reactor operator indicating that all of its existing HEU supply would be exhausted prior to obtaining any new HEU fuel under the license. Second, to ensure against supplying a surplus of HEU that could be diverted to unapproved uses, the Commission restricted Petten to annual shipments of less than 38 kilograms, as NCI had urged, rather than authorizing export of the total quantity of 134 kilograms of HEU in a single shipment, as the operator requested. In addition, the Commission made clear it will keep a close watch on implementation of the conversion pledge, requesting that "the Executive Branch provide the Commission with annual reports detailing the status of the Petten reactor's conversion effort. Should the amount of HEU authorized for export under this license exceed the Petten reactor's actual needs, the Commission can then determine what action, if any, it should take."
Alan J. Kuperman, Senior Policy Analyst at NCI, said: "The pledge by the European Community to convert the Petten reactor to low-enriched uranium is a major victory for nuclear non-proliferation. The NRC has wisely designed the export license in a way that will hold the community to that pledge. No more HEU can be exported from the United States to Petten beyond this license, and under no circumstances will Petten use HEU from any source after 2006. Nearly a decade of NCI's vigilance and hard work have paid off, paving the way for conversion of one of the last reactors to rely on bomb-grade fuel and thereby reducing risks of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism."
NCI President Paul L. Leventhal will be in the Netherlands this week to observe implementation of the agreement, especially arrangements now being discussed for storage and disposal of Petten's spent fuel, which contains bomb-grade uranium. The United States has offered to take back and dispose of the spent fuel, as part of an offer to all operators who agree to convert their reactors to LEU. However, the European Community now wants to transport the spent fuel to a Dutch waste storage site before deciding whether to return the material to the United States---a plan that is stimulating controversy in the Netherlands. Leventhal said it appears possible to begin sending spent fuel directly to the United States as early as December without any need to transport it within the Netherlands.
Kuperman noted that other high-power research reactors are likely to fall into line behind Petten for conversion. Late last year, Belgium signed an exchange of notes with the United States committing to convert its BR-2 reactor to LEU fuel upon final qualification of suitable fuel, now in the final stage of development at the U.S. Argonne National Laboratory. Previously, France had made a similar commitment to convert its ILL-Grenoble research reactor. Finally, South Africa has announced initiation of a new feasibility study to convert its Safari research reactor to low-enriched fuel, despite having ample stocks of HEU fuel from dismantled weapons.
However, in Germany, a plan by the Technical University of Munich to use bomb-grade uranium in a new research reactor, the FRM II, is undermining the growing international consensus against use of HEU. The reactor is under construction and in the final stages of licensing. The U.S. Government has objected to start-up prior to redesign of the core to use LEU, and continues to press the point in talks with German officials. A special German commission has studied options for conversion of the FRM II to LEU, and the government is expected to reach a decision soon.