The Nuclear Campus

October 20, 2005
Matthew Bunn

The Boston Globe

Four years after 9/11, most nuclear research reactors at universities across the United States are essentially undefended, with no guards on site, no fences or security cameras around the building, and few other security measures in place. Some of these facilities are fueled with highly enriched uranium, the easiest material in the world for terrorists to use to make a nuclear bomb.

With terrorist warnings and attacks clogging the airwaves, action is needed to get rid of the potential bomb uranium wherever possible and provide effective security where highly enriched uranium is still needed, both to reduce the dangers posed by these US facilities and to help the United States persuade other countries to do the same.

In 1986, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which oversees these facilities, recognized the danger posed by the stores of highly enriched uranium and issued a rule requiring all the reactors it regulates to convert to low-enriched uranium, which could not be used as the core of a terrorist bomb. The reactors were directed to convert the moment that usable low-enriched uranium fuels were available, and the Department of Energy came up with the money to pay for it.

Almost two decades later, the job is still not done. There are still seven NRC-regulated reactors in the United States using the highly enriched fuel that could use low-enriched uranium already developed, and three more waiting on development of higher-density fuels. Not a single reactor has converted since 9/11. Why? Because the Energy Department has failed to cough up the money to pay for conversion (though it did help to convert 11 university reactors over the years).

At a price ranging from less than $1 million to a few million dollars to convert each reactor, the cost of getting rid of bomb uranium on campus is tiny when compared to the billions spent each year on national security. But it is big when compared to the pittance spent supporting nuclear research in the United States, which is the checkbook that has typically been drawn on for conversion.

Meanwhile, because the research reactors have so little money, the NRC has exempted them from nearly all of its security requirements. Under NRC rules, bomb uranium that would require an impressive security system and a substantial armed guard force if it were located anywhere else needs neither of those things if it is at a research reactor. A recent ABC News investigation documented the results -- reactors where no armed guards were in place, doors were left open, and visitors with large bags were allowed in without being searched.

Defenders of these lax security arrangements argue that most of the highly enriched fuel at research reactors would be too radioactively ''hot" for terrorists to steal and that chemically processing the fuel to get the bomb uranium out would be beyond terrorist capabilities. Unfortunately, neither of these arguments holds water -- particularly in the post 9/11 world of sophisticated and suicidal terrorists. One government study concluded that thieves would not even get enough radiation to make them seriously ill, and one of the leaders of nuclear chemistry in the Manhattan Project warned that turning the uranium into a usable terrorist tool is ''not beyond the ability of most students in introductory chemistry classes at the college level."

The Department of Energy should go beyond its recent decision to fund conversion of two university research reactors and set aside funds to convert all the remaining reactors, or simply shut down those aging facilities whose remaining scientific value does not justify the cost of conversion. Energy and other agencies should do the same with the government's own highly enriched uranium-fueled reactors not licensed by the NRC. At the same time, the NRC should phase out the research reactor exemption. Potential bomb uranium requires the same high standards of security wherever it is located.

Setting a good example has never been more important. As Mohamed ElBaradei, the latest Nobel Peace Prize winner, recently warned President Bush, similar highly enriched uranium-fueled research reactors exist in more than 40 countries. After that Bush-ElBaradei conversation, the Energy Department established a Global Threat Reduction Initiative designed to take on this problem. Bush needs to lead a fast-paced global effort to remove the potential bomb material from the world's most vulnerable sites and make sure that every remaining cache has security sufficient to defeat terrorist threats. To credibly lead that effort, the United States has to get its own house in order.

Matthew Bunn, a senior research associate in the Managing the Atom project at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, is co-author of ''Securing the Bomb 2005: The New Global Imperatives."

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