The Obama administration won praise for promising in 2012 to curtail the use of bomb-grade uranium in the production of medical diagnostic tools. But now the U.S. Energy Department is getting brickbats for proposing to send such materials to several European nations, including Belgium, where a shaky nuclear program has in recent years been plagued by sabotage, radicalization and terrorist surveillance.
It's not the first time that the administration has been accused of failing to fulfill one of its nuclear weapons-related commitments. In this case, in 2012, the United States, Belgium, France and the Netherlands declared at a summit meeting in South Korea that they would begin phasing out the use of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) for making medical isotopes, with the understanding that by a 2015 deadline, the material would be replaced with less concentrated uranium that could not be used by terrorists to construct a nuclear weapon.
That proposed phase-out didn't occur. In fact, a Center for Public Integrity analysis of Nuclear Regulatory Commission export licensing records shows that since making the 2012 promise, the United States government has quietly sold foreign countries 81.7 kg of highly-enriched uranium for use in making medical isotopes — more than enough to build three new nuclear bombs.
This latest request — which was open for public comment until Sept. 14 — has drawn particular objections from nuclear nonproliferation experts. In a letter sent this month to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, former officials from each of the past six presidential administrations said they objected to a request by the National Nuclear Security Administration request that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission authorize the sale and shipment of 7.2 kg of highly-enriched uranium — almost 16 pounds, or more than one-fourth of what's typically considered needed to build a nuclear bomb.
The experts complained that the HEU was going to porously-guarded civilian reactors, in a shipment that will undermine the broader objective of reducing access to highly-enriched uranium throughout Europe. The shipment would wrongly "continue business as usual," their letter complained.
"This is a violation of a commitment by not just any country, but the country that convened and initiated the whole Nuclear Security Summit process," said Alan Kuperman, a University of Texas public policy professor who closely monitors efforts to draw down the world's supply of bomb-grade uranium. "It really risks calling into question whether other countries will feel compelled or committed to abide by their pledges."
A final NRC decision may be weeks away, because before the NRC approves export requests, its commissioners seek presidential guidance. The White House press office did not respond to requests for comment.
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.