Nuclear Nonproliferation:

DOE Needs to Take Action to Further Reduce the Use of Weapons-Usable Uranium in Civilian Research Reactors

GAO-04-807: Published: Jul 30, 2004. Publicly Released: Jul 30, 2004.

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Nuclear research reactors worldwide use highly enriched uranium (HEU) as fuel and for the production of medical isotopes. Because HEU can also be used in nuclear weapons, the Department of Energy's (DOE) Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors program is developing low enriched uranium (LEU), which would be very difficult to use in weapons, to replace HEU. To date, 39 of the 105 research reactors in the United States and abroad targeted by DOE have converted to LEU fuel. GAO was asked to examine (1) the status of the remaining research reactors in converting to LEU fuel, (2) DOE's progress in developing new LEU fuels for reactors where conversion is not yet technically feasible, (3) DOE's progress in developing LEU for the production of medical isotopes, and (4) the status of DOE and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) efforts to improve security at research reactors.

Currently, conversion to LEU fuel is technically feasible for 35 of the 66 research reactors in DOE's program that still use HEU fuel, but most do not have plans to convert. In the United States, 8 research reactors, including 6 university research reactors, have not converted because DOE has not provided the necessary funding. Of the 20 foreign research reactors that use U.S.-origin HEU fuel, 14 do not have plans to convert because they have a sufficient supply of HEU fuel and either do not want to incur the additional cost of conversion or do not have the necessary funding. Finally, only 1 of 7 Russian-supplied research reactors that could use LEU fuel is scheduled to convert. Conversion to LEU fuel is not technically feasible for 31 research reactors worldwide that still use HEU fuel. DOE has experienced technical setbacks in fuel development that have postponed the conversion of the 31 reactors until 2010 at the earliest. One fuel failed unexpectedly in testing, and DOE may cancel further development, depending on the results of additional tests. Initial testing of another LEU fuel produced positive results, but additional testing is required and the fuel will not be developed until 2010 at the earliest. Separately from the development of LEU fuel, DOE is developing LEU to replace HEU in the production of medical isotopes. DOE has not yet completed the work that would enable conversion of large-scale medical isotope production to LEU. One reactor has converted to LEU for smallscale production. However, large-scale producers are concerned that the cost of converting to LEU could be prohibitive. DOE and NRC have taken steps to improve security at foreign and U.S. research reactors. While operators at most research reactors we visited said that security had been upgraded through DOE or NRC efforts, we observed areas where further improvements could be made. Recognizing the possible need for further improvements, DOE and NRC are engaged in separate efforts to assess and improve security.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: In order to further reduce the use of HEU in research reactors in the United States and abroad, the Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration should evaluate the costs and benefits of providing additional incentives to foreign research reactors that use U.S.-origin HEU fuel to convert to LEU, particularly to reactor operators that are willing to convert but do not have sufficient funding to do so.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In GAO's 2004 report entitled "Nuclear Nonproliferation: DOE Needs to Take Action to Further Reduce the Use of Weapons-Usable Uranium in Civilian Research Reactors," (GAO-04-807), GAO recommended that the Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) should evaluate the costs and benefits of providing additional incentives to foreign research and test reactors (RTRs) that use U.S.-origin Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) fuel to convert to Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) fuel, particularly to RTRs operators that are willing to convert but do not have sufficient funding to do so. NNSA agreed with this recommendation and in part, as a result of GAO's recommendation, NNSA is now supporting the conversion of RTRs with U.S.-origin HEU fuel to LEU and providing additional incentives to foreign RTRs that use U.S.-origin HEU fuel to convert to LEU, particularly to RTR operators that are willing to convert but do not have sufficient funding to do so. For example, according to NNSA officials, beginning in March 2005 the U.S. began supporting and providing funding as an incentive for the conversion of the U.S.- origin HEU fueled RTRs located in Jamaica and Mexico.

    Recommendation: In order to further reduce the use of HEU in research reactors in the United States and abroad, the Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration should, once a reactor has been converted, place a high priority on removing the HEU fuel and transporting it to the appropriate DOE facility.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In GAO's 2004 report entitled "Nuclear Nonproliferation: DOE Needs to Take Action to Further Reduce the Use of Weapons-Usable Uranium in Civilian Research Reactors" (GAO-04-807), GAO recommended that once a research reactor has been converted to Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) from Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) fuel, the Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration should place a high priority on removing and transporting the HEU fuel to the appropriate DOE facility. According to an Idaho National Laboratory official, in part as a result of this recommendation, once a research reactor has been converted, DOE is now placing a high priority on removing the HEU fuel and transporting it to the appropriate DOE facility. For example, following the recent conversion of the research reactor at Texas A&M, DOE removed the fuel as quickly as possible considering technical and logistical considerations to Idaho National Laboratory for eventual disposal.

    Recommendation: In order to further reduce the use of HEU in research reactors in the United States and abroad, the Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration should, once a reactor has been converted, place a high priority on removing the HEU fuel and transporting it to the appropriate DOE facility.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In GAO's 2004 report entitled "Nuclear Nonproliferation: DOE Needs to Take Action to Further Reduce the Use of Weapons-Usable Uranium in Civilian Research Reactors" (GAO-04-807), GAO recommended that once a research reactor has been converted to Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) from Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) fuel, the Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration should place a high priority on removing and transporting the HEU fuel to the appropriate DOE facility. According to an Idaho National Laboratory official, in part as a result of this recommendation, once a research reactor has been converted, DOE is now placing a high priority on removing the HEU fuel and transporting it to the appropriate DOE facility. For example, following the recent conversion of the research reactor at Texas A&M, DOE removed the fuel as quickly as possible considering technical and logistical considerations to Idaho National Laboratory for eventual disposal.

    Recommendation: In order to further reduce the use of HEU in research reactors in the United States and abroad, the Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration should consider placing a higher priority on converting the six remaining university research reactors in the United States that can use currently available LEU fuel.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2004, GAO recommended that the Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration consider placing a higher priority on converting the 6 remaining university research reactors in the United States that use Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) fuel to currently available Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) fuel. HEU is a key component in the construction of nuclear weapons, whereas LEU cannot be used in a nuclear weapon. GAO found that six university reactors could convert to currently available LEU fuel, but DOE had not provided the necessary funding. Although DOE had funded the conversion of university research reactors to LEU fuel in the past, the last university reactor converted was in 2000 and DOE had not put a priority on converting the remaining HEU reactors. DOE concurred with the GAO recommendation, according to NNSA officials, and acted to place a higher priority on converting the remaining university research and test reactors. For Fiscal Year 2006, the Office of Global Nuclear Materials and Threat Reduction requested funding for the conversion of the University of Florida's and Texas A&M's reactors. A DOE official said that the conversion process is already under way at the reactors and they expect the conversion of the reactors to be complete by July of 2006. In addition, DOE officials said that NNSA plans to continue to request funding for the conversion of the remaining U.S. reactors that can convert to currently available LEU fuel.

    Recommendation: In order to further reduce the use of HEU in research reactors in the United States and abroad, the Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration should consider placing a higher priority on converting the six remaining university research reactors in the United States that can use currently available LEU fuel.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2004, GAO recommended that the Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration consider placing a higher priority on converting the 6 remaining university research reactors in the United States that use Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) fuel to currently available Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) fuel. HEU is a key component in the construction of nuclear weapons, whereas LEU cannot be used in a nuclear weapon. GAO found that six university reactors could convert to currently available LEU fuel, but DOE had not provided the necessary funding. Although DOE had funded the conversion of university research reactors to LEU fuel in the past, the last university reactor converted was in 2000 and DOE had not put a priority on converting the remaining HEU reactors. DOE concurred with the GAO recommendation, according to NNSA officials, and acted to place a higher priority on converting the remaining university research and test reactors. For Fiscal Year 2006, the Office of Global Nuclear Materials and Threat Reduction requested funding for the conversion of the University of Florida's and Texas A&M's reactors. A DOE official said that the conversion process is already under way at the reactors and they expect the conversion of the reactors to be complete by July of 2006. In addition, DOE officials said that NNSA plans to continue to request funding for the conversion of the remaining U.S. reactors that can convert to currently available LEU fuel.

    Recommendation: In order to further reduce the use of HEU in research reactors in the United States and abroad, the Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration should evaluate the costs and benefits of providing additional incentives to foreign research reactors that use U.S.-origin HEU fuel to convert to LEU, particularly to reactor operators that are willing to convert but do not have sufficient funding to do so.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In GAO's 2004 report entitled "Nuclear Nonproliferation: DOE Needs to Take Action to Further Reduce the Use of Weapons-Usable Uranium in Civilian Research Reactors," (GAO-04-807), GAO recommended that the Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) should evaluate the costs and benefits of providing additional incentives to foreign research and test reactors (RTRs) that use U.S.-origin Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) fuel to convert to Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) fuel, particularly to RTRs operators that are willing to convert but do not have sufficient funding to do so. NNSA agreed with this recommendation and in part, as a result of GAO's recommendation, NNSA is now supporting the conversion of RTRs with U.S.-origin HEU fuel to LEU and providing additional incentives to foreign RTRs that use U.S.-origin HEU fuel to convert to LEU, particularly to RTR operators that are willing to convert but do not have sufficient funding to do so. For example, according to NNSA officials, beginning in March 2005 the U.S. began supporting and providing funding as an incentive for the conversion of the U.S.- origin HEU fueled RTRs located in Jamaica and Mexico.

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