MU reactor to ditch weapons grade uranium

Wednesday, April 28, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
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The U.S. has ordered research reactors to dilute their weapons-grade uranium fuel stocks down to low-enriched uranium. The MU reactor is the highest power university research reactor in the U.S. The process of diluting uranium is known as “downblending.”

COLUMBIA — The MU Research Reactor Center is laying the groundwork to switch from using weapons-grade uranium to a safer fuel as part of a national push to minimize security threats.

Civilian reactors such as the one at MU have become the focus of federal security strategists working to minimize the likelihood that terrorists could attack a reactor or steal highly enriched uranium that can be used to make atomic bombs.

Uses of the MU reactor

The MU Research Reactor Center is primarily used for academic research and production of cancer detection isotopes and treatment drugs. There are four major units under research and development: life sciences, social sciences, material sciences and engineering.

  • Life sciences includes radiopharmaceutical research that focuses on developing radioisotopes for use in detecting and treating cancer and other chronic human diseases.
  • The social sciences unit documents and traces the origins of human culture, evolution and activity. It studies materials and artifacts created by various cultures.
  •  The material sciences unit uses neutrons to investigate the structure and dynamics of materials and modify the property of materials. The unit has the know-how to transform semiconductors into superconductors.

The reactor also has a products and services division that offers research and commercial isotopes and other tailored products for its customers.

Source: MU Research Reactor Center

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MU is anticipating the switch to low-enriched uranium, and officials are keen on preserving its efficiency as a scientific research and pharmacy drug production facility after the fuel change.

In a three-step conversion process that is likely to be replicated in other civilian reactors in the U.S., the Idaho National Lab Advanced Test Reactor is leading federal efforts to test a lower grade fuel that can provide an alternative source of power for research reactors.

If test results are positive, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will certify the fuel for use by the five research reactors in the U.S., including the one at MU, that still use enriched, weapons-grade uranium.

The long-term goal is to convert all 130 civilian reactors around the globe to run on the safer fuel.

The office of Ralph Butler, director of the center, referred queries to the MU News Bureau.

"There have been some computer simulations done at MU, but all testing of the low-enriched uranium has been done at Idaho," MU spokesman Christian Basi said. "Once approved, we would begin the conversion process immediately."

The 44-year old MU reactor produces cancer treating isotopes and pharmacy drugs, and Basi said that maintaining the quality of their products after the fuel switch remains a concern.

President Barack Obama outlined his administration's vision for securing nuclear material in an address last year in Prague, where he announced "a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years."

David Moncton, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, said his university  was hoping to meet the U.S. Department of Energy's deadline of making the conversion from highly enriched fuel by 2015. Basi said  MU was working within the same timeline.

Obama has elevated the issue of nuclear security to a top domestic and foreign policy plank by signing a pledge that America will never use nuclear weapons on a non-nuclear state that has signed on to non-proliferation treaties. He also endorsed a bilateral nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia and assembling world leaders in a conference where pledges were made to enhance security of nuclear materials around the globe.

Calling a nuclear attack "the single biggest threat to U.S. security," Obama told reporters at the summit that terrorists would not hesitate to launch an attack if they obtained nuclear weapons.

The summit was attended by 46 heads of state, making it the largest gathering of world leaders hosted by a U.S. president since the 1945 conference that founded the United Nations.

MU reactor officials attended the Nuclear Security Conference that took place a day after the Washington summit earlier this month, Basi said.

The 10-megawatt reactor is the largest of about 27 similar facilities located on university campuses in the U.S.

The federal government has committed to finance most, if not all, costs of the conversion, Basi said, leaving MU with the lesser headache of having to worry about disruption of normal production "for several weeks" to reconfigure its systems.

Moncton said the fuel conversion has become an important security element for research reactors, which have already undergone major security upgrades since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"The MIT reactor already has very robust security, but the important component now is to have low-enriched fuel," Moncton said.

He said the MIT reactor does not store any unused fuel that would pose security concerns. MU said its regulatory license limits the reactor to 5 kilograms of the highly enriched grade of fuel, which "is significantly below the amount required to make a weapon."

Nuclear experts have warned that multiple thefts could build up sufficient amounts to assemble a dirty bomb, and an April 2005 Congressional report said designers of current research reactors did not anticipate aircraft attack threats.

"Nuclear power plants were designed to withstand hurricanes, earthquakes and other extreme events, but attacks by large airliners loaded with fuel were not contemplated when design requirements were determined," read a section of the report.

Russia is known to have the bulk of research reactors that are powered by weapons-grade fuel. More than two dozen other countries including France, Japan, China, Britain, Germany, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Nigeria and Jamaica house similar facilities.

Commenting on the outcome of the recent Washington nuclear summit, nuclear physicist and security expert Thomas Cochran criticized participants for failing to forge a binding consensus on the elimination of use of weapons-grade fuel at all the 130 research reactors across the globe.

Cochran, a member of the nonprofit environmental advocacy group the Natural Resources Defense Council, said "the leaders appeared to put the convenience and economics of operating research reactors over the urgent need to minimize the risk of a catastrophic nuclear terrorist strike.

"What's needed now is a global ban on the production, use and possession of highly enriched uranium for civil use," Cochran said.

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Ellis Smith April 28, 2010 | 7:05 a.m.

Interesting. UM System's first nuclear research reactor, still in operation, has never used weapons grade uranium as fuel.

It's unnecessary to have a reactor fueled with weapons grade uranium to teach nuclear physics or the principles nuclear reactor operation.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking April 28, 2010 | 9:05 a.m.

"Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Nigeria and Jamaica house similar facilities"

Hmm. I'd think facilities in these countries would be greater security threats than MU's reactor.

Even building a dirty bomb (much less an actual fission device) requires a great deal of care and equipment that a lot of terrorists would have trouble getting/using. Also, any kind of high level waste could be used for such a bomb. This material cannot be casually handled, especially in significant amounts. I'd think it would be easier for terrorists to get a functional bomb from somewhere like Pakistan, or the former Soviet Union, than to build a dirty bomb.

Keep security high, of course. But this threat is not a big one relative to some. I'd say our dependence on foreign oil is a far greater threat to national security. But we don't seem to want to do anything about that.


(Report Comment)
Anonymous Nuke April 28, 2010 | 8:07 p.m.
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