Campus reactors slow to convert weapons-grade fuel

Saturday, August 20, 2005

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- For University of Missouri tailgaters, the name of the new parking lot down the hill from 68,349-seat Memorial Stadium is little more than a curiosity: Reactor Field, a nod to the nearby, 10-megawatt nuclear research reactor.

The nation's largest university-based reactor keeps an intentionally low local profile, despite its cutting-edge research into several promising cancer-fighting drugs.

But among government regulators and nuclear energy watchdogs, the reactor has a more troubling distinction: it's one of only two university reactors, along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that remains unable to convert a cache of highly enriched uranium -- an ingredient experts say is crucial to building nuclear weapons -- to a safer alternative fuel.

"These things have been used for education for so long, the operators don't seem to accept they can be used for nuclear weapons," said George Bunn, a professor at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation who helped negotiate the 1968 global Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

As little as 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, or about 55 pounds, is needed to build a nuclear bomb on the scale of the one dropped on Hiroshima 60 years ago. Smaller nuclear bombs could be built using as little as 12 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, or HEU, experts say.

The Missouri reactor's federal license limits the amount of unirradiated, or "fresh" HEU, to five kilograms. MIT officials declined to disclose the amount of fresh HEU stored on site.

, though previously published reports suggest that at least nine kilograms are inside the Cambridge reactor at any given time.

The distinction between irradiated and unirradiated fuel is significant. Once uranium-based fuel is doused with radiation, the number of isotopes rapidly diminishes, making it unsuitable as a weapon.

Research reactors sprouted worldwide in the wake of President Dwight Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program in 1953, including on dozens on American college campuses. But by 1978, Cold War tensions and concerns over nuclear fuel falling into criminal hands prompted creation of a Department of Energy initiative to convert HEU at research reactors to the low-enriched alternative more commonly found at commercial power reactors and which lacks explosive properties.

"Domestic and international security concerns dictate very strongly that we halt the use of research reactor fuels which contain highly enriched uranium because of its nuclear explosive properties," then-Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Victor Gilinsky wrote to the MIT reactor director in 1983. "Universities, especially, should make every effort to shift away from nuclear explosive fuels."

At least 40 research reactors worldwide, including campus reactors at the University of Michigan, Ohio State University and the Georgia Institute of Technology, subsequently converted their fuel supplies. The University of Florida and Texas A&M are scheduled to convert their reactors next year, with additional federal money in the budget to accelerate reactor conversions at the University of Wisconsin, Washington, Purdue and Oregon State.

The emphasis on conversion of American research reactors only increased after the 2001 terrorist attacks, when the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission ordered enhanced security at nuclear sites in the wake of concerns that terrorists would target such power supplies.

That leaves Missouri and MIT among the 31 research and test reactors worldwide that cannot switch from highly enriched uranium because of technical limitations, primarily because of smaller reactor core sizes.

Researchers at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois are working on two alternatives, known as dispersion and monolithic fuels, that could be used at both Missouri and MIT. But development of those alternatives remains at least five years away -- and a recent setback in what had been identified as the more promising of the two alternatives could render that option obsolete.

According to a July 2004 Government Accountability Office report, Argonne scientists have delayed completion of dispersion fuel until 2010 and "may recommend that DOE cancel further development altogether if the fuel cannot be sufficiently improved." The Department of Energy has set a target date of 2014 to convert the remaining reactors.

At MIT, officials have set aside $50,000 to expedite the conversion process, said reactor director John Bernard.

"If that fuel does get through its test phase, we're in a position to move rapidly at that point," he said. "There's no reason not to convert."

At Missouri, though, officials hope to upgrade the reactor to 20 megawatts -- an increase contingent on continued use of highly enriched uranium.

Reactor director Ralph Butler declined an Associated Press interview request, but in a written response said that a power upgrade would enhance the university's ability to produce radioactive isotopes used for medical diagnosis and treatment.

"The majority of isotopes used in the United States today are provided by foreign suppliers," Butler wrote. "The nation needs a consistent, reliable supply of radioactive and stable isotopes for medical, security, space power and research uses."

Unlike commercial power reactors, which have their own 24-hour security forces on the premises, the Missouri and MIT reactors rely upon campus police officers who patrol broader areas. Both reactors are also located in heavily populated areas: in MIT's case, the city of Cambridge.

Both Butler and Bernard said that reactor security is adequate, and enhanced since 9/11 -- but they won't reveal specifics. Butler called the likelihood of research reactors being used as sources of bombs "remote."

A greater threat of nuclear sabotage, said Bernard, stems from research reactors in the former Soviet Union. A reactor in Belarus, for example, contains more than 370 kilograms of highly enriched uranium -- enough to make several Hiroshima-sized bombs.

"Nuclear terrorism is a very serious threat to western countries, including the United States," he said. "But the origin of the material isn't going to be a research reactor."

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