Deadlock Over Russian Uranium

August 23, 1992

Even before the collapse of communism was official, the United States and the former Soviet Union had reached agreement on destroying thousands of nuclear weapons in the superpowers' arsenals. Now that the Russians are beginning to deliver on their end of the bargain, however, a new question has arisen: what to do with tons of bomb-grade uranium and #F plutonium products extracted from former Soviet nuclear warheads?

No one wants to see these materials fall into the wrong hands. The U.S. could buy and dilute weapons-grade uranium from the former Soviet Union to run in its own nuclear power plants. That would help protect against the vagaries of future policy shifts in the newly independent republics. It would also divert potentially lethal resources away from would-be nuclear weapons states such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Both the U.S departments of State and Defense favor purchasing ex-Soviet uranium for precisely those reasons.

But there's a hitch. Officials at the Commerce and Energy departments fear allowing U.S. power companies to purchase Russian reactor fuel will hurt the U.S. uranium industry. The Energy Department is the world's largest supplier of commercial reactor fuel. So the Commerce Department has obligingly slapped a prohibitive 115 percent tariff on imports of Russian reactor fuel and for good measure temporarily blocked sales of Russian weapons-grade uranium as well.

The split in the U.S. government over Russian uranium is worse than the proverbial right hand not knowing what the left is doing. It is a clear case of a conflict between long-term security interests and short-term commercial advantage. Incredibly, the latter seems to have gotten the upper hand.

Sadly, the Bush administration has been having trouble making up its mind which is more important -- gaining control over a potentially dangerous stockpile of nuclear bomb-making materials left over from the Cold War, or insulating a government-run domestic industry from foreign competition.

If the Russians want to sell us their bomb-grade uranium, we ought to let them. The Energy Department can even stockpile it in reserves to protect U.S. uranium prices. Over the long run, that would be cheaper than trying to build defenses against nuclear attack by a renegade state that armed itself by purchasing or stealing former Soviet nuclear materials. Whatever the short-term cost of keeping Russian weapons-grade uranium out of the hands of terrorists and outlaw states, it is a pittance compared to the long-term peace of mind it would buy.

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