Hurdles Seen to New Curbs on Bomb-Grade Uranium

Workers prepare highly enriched uranium for removal from a Hungarian research reactor site in 2013. Political obstacles may stand in the way of any new multilateral effort to curb civilian uses of highly enriched uranium, according to a new analysis.
National Journal
Diane Barnes
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Diane Barnes
May 29, 2014, 10:50 a.m.

Ana­lysts warn that en­trenched polit­ic­al obstacles may stand in the way of any new mul­ti­lat­er­al ef­fort to curb non­mil­it­ary uses of bomb-grade urani­um.

World lead­ers have achieved a de­gree of suc­cess since 2010 in re­du­cing the use of highly en­riched urani­um for ci­vil­ian needs, such as fuel­ing nuc­le­ar re­act­ors and man­u­fac­tur­ing med­ic­al iso­topes, says a May ana­lys­is by Miles Pom­per and Phil­ippe Mauger of the James Mar­tin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies.

They ar­gued, though, that dangers from the ma­ter­i­al per­sist. The au­thors said roughly 54 tons of highly en­riched urani­um is be­ing used for peace­ful pur­poses across 29 na­tions, and a U.N. es­tim­ate sug­gests a would-be nuc­le­ar ter­ror­ist may need to steal as little as 55 pounds to con­struct a bomb.

Par­ti­cipants in the 2014 Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit in The Hag­ue, Neth­er­lands, is­sued a com­mu­nique call­ing on coun­tries to “min­im­ize their stocks of HEU.”

Still, that March state­ment was non­bind­ing, and Pom­per and Mauger ar­gued that more sub­stan­tial ef­forts have been hampered by the dif­fer­ing goals of in­di­vidu­al gov­ern­ments. The fourth, and pos­sibly fi­nal, Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit is sched­uled for 2016 in the United States.

“With the end of the high-level sum­mit pro­cess likely ap­proach­ing in 2016, time is run­ning out to set a clear ob­ject­ive that can muster sus­tained en­gage­ment from the full in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity,” the au­thors wrote. They pressed for par­ti­cipants in the up­com­ing gath­er­ing to make great­er com­mit­ments, such as sub­ject­ing all non­mil­it­ary highly en­riched urani­um to in­ter­na­tion­al in­spec­tions and ul­ti­mately end­ing all ci­vil­ian use of the ma­ter­i­al.

“Fur­ther HEU stock min­im­iz­a­tion re­mains blocked by a few re­cal­cit­rant coun­tries, and es­tab­lish­ing broad­er leg­al prin­ciples on HEU man­age­ment is prov­ing to be dif­fi­cult,” they wrote in the Stan­ley Found­a­tion as­sess­ment.

Be­larus and South Africa have re­tained stocks of the ma­ter­i­al for polit­ic­al reas­ons, while Rus­sia and Ger­many have res­isted trans­par­ency ini­ti­at­ives over fears that new meas­ures could “shed poor light” on their urani­um hold­ings, the art­icle says.

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