Minimizing Civilian Uses of Highly Enriched Uranium

At the request of its Member States, the IAEA has been involved for many years in supporting efforts towards reducing the uses of highly enriched uranium or removing them from use. (Photo: P. Pavlicek/IAEA)

IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei stressed the need for more vigorous and effective actions towards minimizing the civilian uses of highly enriched uranium (HEU) at an international conference taking place in Oslo, Norway, 17-20 June 2006.

In his remarks, delivered to the Conference by the Director of the IAEA Office of External Relations, Vilmos Cserveny, Dr. ElBaradei cited the conference´s timeliness in view of increasing attention currently being given to the control of uranium enrichment technology.

More than 100 civilian nuclear facilities around the world still run on weapons-grade HEU, that is uranium that has been enriched to 90% or greater. These facilities include research reactors and critical assemblies that were established in the 1950s and 1960s and have played a central role in the development of peaceful uses of nuclear technology. Many experts, agree that these reactors can be converted to run efficiently on low enriched uranium (LEU) thus reducing proliferation risks while continuing to ensure a secure and effective path for nuclear research for peaceful purposes.

At the request of its Member States, the IAEA has been involved for many years in supporting efforts towards reducing the uses of HEU. International and national efforts have also increased in this area and resulted in the full conversion of 33 research reactors as of June 2006. Although much has been achieved, vulnerabilities remain, Dr. ElBaradei emphasized.

These vulnerabilities, including the clear signs of terrorists trying to acquire nuclear material through criminal networks, were the subject of an opinion piece co-authored by Dr. ElBaradei and Norwegian Foreign Affairs Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, published in the Financial Times last week. In that article Dr. ElBaradei and Minister Gahr stressed the need to continue working with a sense of urgency, and through more coherent global action to minimize commercial uses of HEU. They outlined some of the urgent measures that would be needed as follows:

The countries involved should join forces to step up their efforts towards minimizing and eventually eliminating the civilian use of HEU. Joint research should be conducted to address the remaining technical hurdles involved in converting from HEU to LEU the operations of facilities and the production processes for medical isotopes. The commercial interests of the companies concerned should be protected, and the conversion work should ensure that reactors are converted in a safe and secure manner, without increasing the operating costs of the reactors and without altering their scientific mission or functions. Financing and other incentives should be made available where needed to assist countries with conversion operations.

All countries should agree to stop producing fissile material for use in nuclear weapons. The elements are already in place for such an agreement, in the form of the proposed Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty.

To build confidence, countries with civilian and military HEU stockpiles should release clear inventories of those stockpiles and publish a schedule under which the remaining HEU will be verifiably downblended.

"The IAEA has co-operated with the Government of Norway in the preparations for this event and is looking forward to its deliberations" the IAEA Director General said.

"I trust the Oslo Symposium will be an important milestone on the road towards forging international understanding about the benefits of moving away from the use of and commerce in HEU worldwide and the technical feasibility of doing so."

Last update: 11 November 2014