In DepthNuclear Nonproliferation

Risky reactor fuel to linger

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Science  05 Feb 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6273, pp. 544
DOI: 10.1126/science.351.6273.544

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Since 1978, the United States and other nations have been pushing to eliminate highly enriched uranium (HEU)—which a terrorist or rogue nation could use to make a bomb—as fuel in civilian research reactors. But achieving that goal will take far longer than previously hoped, according to a study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Instead of 2018, a timeframe of 2035 is more realistic, the 28 January report concludes. Dozens of civilian research reactors have closed or converted from HEU—uranium enriched to at least 20% of the fissile isotope U-235—to safer low enriched uranium (LEU), including 28 since 2009. But 74 of them still rely on HEU, and developing an LEU replacement fuel for them will take another 12 to 17 years, the report says. Moreover, Russia has expressed little interest in converting its 32 research reactors. Most controversially, as an interim step the report calls for converting the eight U.S. research reactors from running on 93% enriched weapons-grade uranium to 45% enriched HEU. Some nonproliferation experts argue that move would perpetuate commerce in HEU and torpedo the development the LEU fuel.