University's research reactors use weapons-grade nuclear fuel

Government promised low-enriched uranium for more than 20 years


MADISON, Wis. - The University of Wisconsin's nuclear reactor is an unassuming little model, operated (on Tuesdays and Thursdays only) by students in T-shirts and shorts. In the past few months, it has been used to identify the source of pottery shards from an ancient settlement in India and to test whether heart stents work better if they have been irradiated.

But its fuel is weapons-grade uranium. If it were stolen, experts say, it could give terrorists or other criminals a major head start on an atomic bomb.

Five other university research reactors around the country also use weapons-grade fuel, even though the federal government has promised for more than two decades to reclaim the uranium and substitute a less enriched variety.

"We have been on the list for conversion for at least 10 years," said Michael L. Corradini, the director of the nuclear engineering program. "We've been waiting for funding from the Department of Energy."

Security measures

Stealing the fuel would not be easy. The reactor's radioactive core is near the bottom of a pool of water 27 feet deep, in about two dozen fuel bundles, each weighing 58 pounds. Still, experts say, there is no reason to risk theft because the reactors could run on uranium not suitable for bombs.

The reactors at Wisconsin and the other universities - Oregon State, Washington State, Purdue, Texas A&M and the University of Florida - were first supplied with uranium during the Cold War, as a spinoff of the government's Atoms for Peace program. The United States gave the material to research reactors around the world, offering to share nuclear technology if the recipient countries promised not to develop nuclear weapons.

But since 1978, out of concern that the uranium might be turned into bomb fuel, the Department of Energy has spent millions of dollars to develop lower-grade fuel and convert scores of reactors to run on it. As of July 30, according to the Government Accountability Office, 39 of 105 research reactors worldwide had converted or were in the process. But the six campus reactors in this country are not among them.

"It's outrageous that they're still doing this," said Victor Gilinsky, who was an early advocate for switching to low-enriched fuel as a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 1975 to 1984. There may not be quite enough on hand at Wisconsin to make a bomb, he said, but "who says that somebody has to get enough in one shot?"

`Bad example'

Campus reactors have far less security than places where the government keeps bomb-grade uranium, and they may have foreign students of unknown political sympathies, Gilinsky said. And he pointed out that the United States is seeking to persuade countries all over the world to stop civilian use of bomb-grade uranium.

"It's a bad example," he said. "How can we go around the world asking people to shift over if we're not shifting over ourselves?"

Asked why the research reactors had not been converted, Anson Franklin, a spokesman for the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration, which is in charge of nonproliferation said: "There hasn't been enough funding." He said that in May, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham promised to seek conversion of all the reactors by 2014. But he said he could not give a schedule for the campus reactors.

Franklin also acknowledged that his department does not know just what the cost would be. The Energy Department told the accountability office that it had converted 11 research reactors at universities for a total of $10 million but that the remaining ones would cost $5 million to $10 million each. That drew a sharp rejoinder from the State Department, which wants the reactors converted.

"Maybe there's a good reason why the final eight should be five to 10 times more expensive to convert than the first 11, but frankly we doubt it," a letter from the department stated. The State Department added that the Energy Department "has been reluctant to fund more conversions and has a tendency to overstate the potential costs to deflect pressure to spend money on them."

John I. Sackett, the associate director of Argonne National Laboratory, who led a team that designed the substitute fuel, pointed out that the fuel now in the campus reactors is dangerously radioactive, making it hard to handle. He acknowledged, however, that highly enriched uranium is an easier fuel from which to build a bomb than is plutonium. "It's a less complicated technology," he said.

At reactors, conversion to low-enriched uranium offers no benefits to the researchers or operators, except perhaps to simplify the security rules. Officials at the University of Wisconsin will not discuss the details of those rules. The reactor is behind a strong steel door with a steel grate over the windows and is watched by closed-circuit television, among other precautions.

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