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The Uranium-233 Problem

America’s Own Loose Nukes

by ROBERT ALVAREZ

The government can’t simply bury its uranium-233 problem.

If you knew that more than 200 pounds of nuclear bomb material may be missing from government nuclear facilities in the United States, would that worry you?

Recently, three activists, including an 82-year-old nun, broke past the barriers of one of the world’s largest and most modern nuclear explosive storage facilities. But long before that incident, a little-known nuclear security problem was festering at a nearby 69-year-old building – the site of enough bomb-grade uranium to fuel dozens of nuclear weapons.

This facility, Building 3019 at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, is eligible for listing on the National Historic Registry, and can’t meet current protection requirements. Nonetheless, the U.S. Department of Energy has been slow to do anything about it. The federal government is dragging its feet and failing to remove and safely dispose of large quantities of uranium.

Not only that, it appears that more than 200 pounds of the bomb-grade uranium-233 – enough to fuel about 10 nuclear weapons – may be unaccounted for.

Your bank keeps careful track of the whereabouts of your money, down to the last red cent. For obvious reasons, the government is supposed to do the same with weapons-grade nuclear material. But as I detailed in a new report on this type of uranium, our nuclear facilities may have done a poor job of keeping track of this dangerous material. That’s a risky situation when you’re talking about the building blocks of the most destructive weapons known to humankind.

If as little as 19 pounds of this type of uranium fell into the wrong hands, it could destroy downtown Washington or another big city. And here’s something even more outrageous: the government is now planning to simply dump most of this concentrated nuclear explosive material, as is, straight into the ground. But this type of uranium requires the world’s most stringent safeguards to prevent theft. It’s a problem that the government can’t simply bury.

Uranium-233 was initially made by the government to fuel several nuclear weapons that were exploded in the open air and underground. From the 1960s through the 1980s, the government tried using uranium-233 as a potential fuel for a new generation of power reactors. The material proved too costly, however, and using it in reactors led to a slew of technical problems. By the late 1980s, the government and nuclear power industry stopped using this type of uranium as a reactor fuel, kicking the problem down the road.

Alarmingly, to save costs, the Department of Energy plans to waive critical safeguard and waste disposal safety requirements for a large part of this dangerous material. That would allow for direct shallow-land disposal in Nevada by August 2014. Such action would set a bad precedent for the Obama administration’s international efforts to lock down loose nukes, and throw U.S. nuclear safety requirements under the bus.

We need to expect better of our government than to dig a hole and simply trash important safety and security requirements for this type of uranium. If an elderly nun can break into a nuclear facility, a would-be terrorist could certainly acquire a hazmat suit and a back hoe  and start digging into a landfill containing bomb-grade material. And even if we don’t have to worry about terrorists, we should worry about this lethal substance seeping into our water supply, our arable land, our children and grandchildren.

The government must ensure that all uranium-233 is accounted for, stored securely, and disposed of safely, so it can never be used in a nuclear weapon.

ROBERT ALVAREZ, an Institute for Policy Studies senior scholar, served as senior policy adviser to the Energy Department’s secretary from 1993 to 1999.