How the Olympics put a spotlight on HEU in research reactors

February 10, 2022, 12:04PMNuclear News

Today’s #ThrowbackThursday post looks at the initial debate surrounding the conversion of research reactor fuel from high-enriched uranium to low-enriched uranium. An article published in the April 1984 issue of Nuclear News (available to all ANS members), titled “NRC studies HEU-to-LEU fuel conversion issue,” was written by the ANS Washington editor John Graham, and brings up several items of interest.

The story: Graham introduces the readers to the growing security concerns around HEU and notes that the issue has its roots in the nonproliferation concerns from the Carter administration that forced the domestic nuclear industry to abandon certain projects—the subject of a #TBT post a couple of weeks ago.

The article goes on to describe a research program at Argonne National Laboratory that focused on this issue. The discussion going on in the 1980s as described in the article provides some interesting context to an article from Argonne about the ongoing effort to convert the world’s research reactors that appeared in the June 2020 issue of Nuclear News.

The article then brings up the 1984 Olympic Games, which were hosted in Los Angeles that summer. One might wonder what on earth the Olympics has to do with the debate in Washington about HEU fuel for research reactors. Well, as the article explains, it involves the research reactor at the University of California at Los Angeles.

NRC studies HEU-to-LEU fuel conversion issue

By John Graham

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will soon receive a staff proposal to order almost all universities with research reactors to convert to low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuels.

This issue has become something of a political hot potato, with most universities bucking the idea that such conversions should be mandated. Most politicians, however, and a body of professionals who devote their careers to nonproliferation issues are strongly supportive of the notion that the United States should take the lead in removing all high-enriched uranium (HEU) fuels from reactors that are not involved in defense activities and cannot be guarded with tight security forces.

The issue dates back to the Carter administration and the various measures proposed in that period in pursuit of strengthened nonproliferation goals. This attitude was codified in the United States in 1978 with the passage of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act.

The HEU fuels for research reactors became popular in the 1960s. The term usually refers to fuel containing 93 percent of the fissionable isotope uranium-235. In comparison, LEU fuels contain less than 2O percent of the same isotope. The issue became a matter of grave international concern in 1981, when Israel destroyed the research reactor in Iraq on the grounds that the facility would use HEU fuels and, thus, could become a factory for bombs to be used against Israel.

Mandate possible

Subsequent political and diplomatic negotiations have led to urgent calls, especially in the United States, to convert research reactors to LEU fuels only (see text of Mathias Amendment, page 120, this issue). A research program at Argonne National Laboratory has led to a recent conclusion that satisfactory fuels can be designed for most university reactors, and in 1982, the NRC issued a call to "encourage" the shift from HEU to LEU fuels at most university facilities. Now, because of the political climate surrounding this issue, the NRC appears ready to mandate the conversion wherever it is possible.

The nuclear engineering faculties at universities with research reactors are nervous about the consequences of any conversion order, fearing that any major new activities surrounding their reactors could stir up a campus protest that could easily lead to orders to shut down many of these vital research tools.

The University of California at Los Angeles is a case in point where a local protest group has been seeking for several years to block further use of the reactor. This has become something of a celebrated issue and has received considerable national media coverage. The most recent newsworthy activity surrounding this reactor has been a decision by university officials that the reactor will not be operated during the forthcoming 1984 Summer Olympics, and it will be tightly guarded and barricaded throughout this entire event. This extreme precautionary measure is being taken to prevent any hostile terrorist activities that might pose a threat to the HEU fuel that is in the reactor.

Late last year, the NRC heard from a group it had commissioned to study this matter. This group, headed by Donald Harris, director of the reactor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, concluded that the fuel conversions would cost on the order of $500,000 per reactor, would endanger the future of some university programs, would waste fuel elements, could retard U.S. researchers vis-à-vis their peers abroad, would do little to reduce HEU traffic, and could lower the quality of the experimental work being performed.

These conclusions were countered in a late January NRC meeting. Arguing for the conversions were Paul Leventhal, president of Nuclear Control Institute (and formerly a senior staffer for Sen. Gary Hart); Theodore "Ted" Taylor, formerly a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who has gained wide notoriety over the years with his claims of being a "former bomb designer" who seeks very restrictive controls on all nuclear materials; and Daniel Hirsch, president of the Committee to Bridge the Gap, the Los Angeles group that seeks to shut down the UCLA reactor.

Security threat

During the NRC's January meeting, Taylor noted the small amount of fissionable material needed to make a bomb, and he correlated this with the much greater quantities of HEU that are available in university research reactors. He also expressed skepticism over the ability of campus security forces to deal with any potential threat involved.

Leventhal spoke of the importance of the good example that must be set by the United States on all such matters of nonproliferation, while Hirsch attacked the Harris conclusions on every point. His primary argument was that the conversion costs would be nowhere near those estimated by the university professors.

There is strong evidence that the federal government may pick up the tab for any conversion ordered by the NRC. A January 26 letter to NRC chairman Nunzio J. Palladino from Reps. Richard Ottinger (D., N.Y.), Edward Markey (D., Mass.), and Howard Wolpe (D., Mich.) stated the position of these influential politicians. The letter argues that the conversion from HEU to LEU should occur at all domestic research reactors where "it is technically feasible."

If the NRC orders this conversion, the Ottinger-Markey-Wolpe letter continues, "we will seek to provide the necessary funds to implement the conversion and to return highly enriched uranium fuel to Department of Energy facilities."

As this was written in mid-March, the question was not if the NRC will issue its conversion order, but when and how hard fast and sweeping it will be. The answer to the question of whether the universities will be allowed to use up all HEU fuel on hand before making the conversion will be of particular importance.

Two university reactors—at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at the University of Missouri—appear to be exempt from any such NRC order, at least at present. These two reactors are unique because the Harris study group concluded that converting them to LEU fuel is not technically feasible, notwithstanding the fuel developments at Argonne.

A bonus: The April 1984 issue also observes the five-year anniversary of the Three Mile Island accident and includes three feature stories about the aftermath. Perhaps that could be a subject of a future #TBT post, but in case any readers are interested, the articles begin on page 53 of the issue.

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