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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Energy 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
National Nuclear Security Administration 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
National Nuclear Security Administration 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
Department of Energy 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
Department of Energy 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
National Nuclear Security Administration 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.
Closed - Implemented
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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