Dutch Unlikely To Meet Nuclear Security Summit Promise on Reactor Conversion

A general view of the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit in March 2012 in Seoul, South Korea. The Netherlands is unlikely to meet a reactor conversion deadline established there.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
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Douglas P. Guarino
March 14, 2014, 11:15 a.m.

The Neth­er­lands — host of this month’s bi­en­ni­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit in The Hag­ue — will likely be un­able to meet a com­mit­ment it made at the last such meet­ing of world lead­ers in South Korea, doc­u­ments re­leased Thursday by a watch­dog group show.

At the 2012 sum­mit, the United States, France, Bel­gi­um and the Neth­er­lands agreed to col­lab­or­ate to­wards pro­du­cing med­ic­al iso­topes without use of weapons-grade highly en­riched urani­um by 2015. Un­der the deal, Dutch pro­du­cer Mallinck­rodt was ex­pec­ted to con­vert its re­act­ors to low en­riched urani­um by that time.

However, in a Decem­ber 2013 present­a­tion to U.S. of­fi­cials, the com­pany re­ferred to the 2015 date that the four coun­tries agreed to as an “ag­gress­ive, as­pir­a­tion­al goal.” The Uni­versity of Texas-Aus­tin’s Nuc­le­ar Pro­lif­er­a­tion Pre­ven­tion Pro­ject ob­tained a copy of the present­a­tion, and made it pub­lic, along with oth­er re­lated doc­u­ments.

“Des­pite our best ef­forts for con­ver­sion, we have run in­to some tech­nic­al is­sues which have delayed the pro­ject,” read the brief­ing slides by Mallinck­rodt Stra­tegic Al­li­ances Dir­ect­or Roy Brown. “These delays will likely re­quire HEU ship­ments throughout 2015 and 2016 to as­sure pa­tient needs are met, be­fore full con­ver­sion to LEU is at­tained.”

Com­pany and Dutch gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials sub­sequently con­firmed the delay in Jan. 27 and Feb. 16 let­ters to Alan Ku­per­man, co­ordin­at­or for the Nuc­le­ar Pro­lif­er­a­tion Pre­ven­tion Pro­ject.

Ku­per­man, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Texas-Aus­tin and a former con­gres­sion­al aide, said Brown re­it­er­ated the delay again on Wed­nes­day at a White House meet­ing. Ku­per­man, who was present at the meet­ing, said com­pany of­fi­cials cited a new 2017 tar­get date for LEU con­ver­sion, but im­plied that there could even be fur­ther delays bey­ond that.

U.S. En­ergy De­part­ment of­fi­cials, who also par­ti­cip­ated in the Wed­nes­day meet­ing and who lead Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion ef­forts to re­duce pro­lif­er­a­tion con­cerns re­lated to med­ic­al iso­topes, could not be reached for com­ment.

Mallinck­rodt spokes­wo­man Lynn Phil­lips on Fri­day said she could not dis­cuss the com­pany’s dis­cus­sions with gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, but con­firmed it had ex­per­i­enced delays in the con­ver­sion pro­gram. The com­pany con­tin­ues to work “di­li­gently”  to­ward con­ver­sion, but a “self-im­posed” 2015 dead­line that she said the com­pany had set a year pri­or to the 2012 sum­mit had been pushed back to 2017. She noted this new tar­get date was in ad­vance of 2020, when the United States plans to halt HEU ex­ports.

Ku­per­man, along with two oth­er U.S.-based act­iv­ists, wrote to Dutch gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials on Jan. 22 and urged them to in­ter­vene. Spe­cific­ally, they asked the Dutch gov­ern­ment, which will host the 2014 sum­mit in less than two weeks, to per­suade Mallinck­rodt to ac­cept U.S. fin­an­cial and tech­nic­al as­sist­ance in or­der to speed the con­ver­sion pro­cess. The U.S. En­ergy De­part­ment has provided fin­an­cial as­sist­ance for con­ver­sion ef­forts in Bel­gi­um and South Africa, but Ku­per­man claims the Mallinck­rodt ini­tially re­fused such aid for its op­er­a­tions in the Neth­er­lands, cit­ing con­ver­sa­tions with U.S. of­fi­cials.

“It would be a grave em­bar­rass­ment for your coun­try at the forth­com­ing sum­mit if the Neth­er­lands were not per­ceived as do­ing everything pos­sible to meet its com­mit­ment from the pre­ced­ing sum­mit,” said the let­ter, signed by Ku­per­man, Prin­ceton Uni­versity Seni­or Re­search Phys­i­cist Frank von Hip­pel and Uni­on of Con­cerned Sci­ent­ists Seni­or Sci­ent­ist Ed­win Ly­man.

Piet de Klerk, the Dutch for­eign min­istry of­fi­cial or­gan­iz­ing the sum­mit, re­spon­ded to the let­ter on Feb. 26. He said Mallinck­rodt had “re­star­ted dis­cus­sions with the U.S. De­part­ment of En­ergy about po­ten­tial fund­ing of a por­tion of the con­ver­sion costs,” but that fin­an­cial as­sist­ance was “not the prime key to suc­cess.”

Ac­cord­ing to de Klerk, over­com­ing tech­nic­al chal­lenges was the most im­port­ant factor in the delay.

“This is a time-con­sum­ing pro­cess of test­ing and re-test­ing, in which every step of the pro­cess, in the in­terest of safety and product qual­ity, has to be ap­proved by the reg­u­lat­ory au­thor­it­ies,” de Klerk wrote. “The Neth­er­lands gov­ern­ment re­mains fully com­mit­ted “¦ and is fully con­fid­ent that the in­dus­tries in­volved will reach the goals set in 2012 as ex­ped­i­tiously as pos­sible.”

Ku­per­man ar­gues, however, that Mallinck­rodt of­fi­cials ad­mit­ted that a lack of ad­equate re­sources was in­deed a factor in the delay. In a Jan. 17 let­ter to Ku­per­man, Brown wrote that Mallinck­rodt ex­per­i­enced un­ex­pec­ted re­act­or shut­downs and main­ten­ance is­sues since the 2012 sum­mit that re­quired the com­pany to “dir­ect sub­stan­tial re­sources to those ef­forts [which] slowed con­ver­sion.”

Phil­lips re­it­er­ated on Fri­day that the re­act­or shut­downs were re­spons­ible for the delays.

Bel­gi­um, Europe’s oth­er ma­jor pro­du­cer of med­ic­al iso­topes, is still ex­pec­ted to meet the 2015 con­ver­sion dead­line, Ku­per­man said. He noted that com­pan­ies in Aus­tralia, South Africa and Ar­gen­tina are already pro­du­cing med­ic­al iso­topes without highly en­riched urani­um.

Ku­per­man chas­tised the Dutch gov­ern­ment for what he said was a fail­ure to act more quickly to en­sure that Mallinck­rodt would en­able the coun­try to com­ply with the sum­mit pact.

“It is a huge em­bar­rass­ment and sets a ter­rible ex­ample when the sum­mit host vi­ol­ates its own pledge,” Ku­per­man said in a writ­ten state­ment Thursday. “‘Do as we say, not as we do’ is not an ef­fect­ive for­eign policy.”

Of­fi­cials at the Dutch em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton were un­able to com­ment by press time.

Un­der the 2012 agree­ment, the United States, which does not cur­rently pro­duce its own med­ic­al iso­topes, agreed to col­lab­or­ate with the European na­tions on their con­ver­sion ef­forts and to con­tin­ue to sup­ply them with highly en­riched urani­um un­til those con­ver­sion ef­forts are com­plete.

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