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Moments in NRC History: Regulating for Safety and Non-Proliferation, Part II

Thomas Wellock
Historian

RTR_2Part I of our Research and Test Reactor Series looked at the promise and unique safety challenges of research reactors, beginning with North Carolina State’s first civilian-owned reactor in 1953.

In Part II of our video series, we look at how the focus on safety of these reactors evolved into a concern about their security.

The Atomic Energy Commission (the NRC’s predecessor) had developed design requirements for research reactors with large safety margins that tolerated errors. Extensive training and supervision was required of licensed operators. Sabotage was foiled by making the reactors’ uranium fuel difficult to remove or destroy.

However, weapons proliferation became a persistent concern. Reactor designers favored fuel highly enriched in fissionable uranium-235. Uranium-235, however, was also the stuff of atomic bombs.

Initially, the AEC only permitted export of reactor technology with low enrichment, but in the 1960s, it granted international requests to U.S. manufacturers for high performance research reactors. The reactors needed only small quantities of enriched fuel, and it was believed bilateral agreements and regular inspections would assure the used fuel was returned to the U.S.

But events in the 1970s – including India’s detonation of a nuclear device made possible with fissionable material from a Canadian research reactor — demonstrated the limits of this approach.

Lowering the fuel enrichment was seen as a viable solution. In 1978, the Department of Energy launched a program to develop a low enriched fuel that met the performance needs of research reactors. In the U.S., operators of 20 research reactors opted to switch to low-enriched fuel.

MIHAfter the 9/11 attacks, the United States launched the Global Threat Reduction Initiative to accelerate the conversion to low-enriched fuel. Twenty-seven reactors around the world, including six in the United States made this conversion, taking out of circulation enough fissionable material to make 20 crude bombs.

The NRC also pursued enhancements against sabotage and theft with better staff background screening, access controls, security searches, and coordination with emergency responders.

The decline of the nuclear industry since the 1970s and the production of isotopes abroad have reduced the need for research reactors in the U.S. Their numbers have dwindled to about 30. This brought a new concern — the vulnerability of the nation’s isotope supply for medical uses, especially molybdenum-99.

The video explores how that vulnerability is being addressed and how the NRC continues to ensure research reactors operate safely in today’s threat environment. I hope you’ll take the time to watch the video.

7 responses to “Moments in NRC History: Regulating for Safety and Non-Proliferation, Part II

  1. For the record December 3, 2015 at 3:24 pm

    To keep the historical facts straight and to put things in perspective, it must also be said about the Indian CIRUS Research reactor it does not use U-235 (the bomb stuff), but the natural uranium and the Canadian design nick named CANDU – that is – natural uranium fuel (U-238, not fissile U-235) which is fissionable (by neutrons) when moderated by heavy water. Also, that CIRUS was not under IAEA safeguards (which did not exist when the reactor was sold), although Canada stipulated, and the U.S. supply contract for the heavy water explicitly specified, that it only be used for peaceful purposes. Thus the as the blogger rightly says, exporting nuclear technology for research of course is fraught with nonproliferation concerns and the end use does not justify whatever the method. CIRUS produced some of India’s initial weapons-grade plutonium for the nuclear test in 1970s from the discharged spent natural Uranium. In fairness to the Indian government it is also a historical fact that, in accordance with the Indo-US nuclear accord reached recently between Indian Prime Minister and US President George W. Bush the reactor was shut down on 31 December 2010.

    • Clarify For the record December 11, 2015 at 9:23 am

      I think that natural uranium contains a small percentage of U-235 which is the primary fissile material in a CANDU reactor. The use of heavy-water minimizes neutron losses (absorption) and results in a more effective neutron population for fissioning the small amount of U-235 contained in natural uranium.

  2. CaptD December 3, 2015 at 1:24 pm

    If only the NRC/DOD/DOE would publish how much ☢ material has been given, sold, gifted or just plain stolen from the US, so that other countries could begin their own nuclear programs, then we might become more understanding of Regulating for Safety and Non-Proliferation. I believe that it is widely known that both Japan and Israel are just two of the countries that have gotten ☢ from the US, I bet that are many more.

  3. Anonymous December 2, 2015 at 8:50 am

    Well, what I don’t like about nuclear nonproliferation activities with our government, parts of this has been blighted my mindboggling cover-ups such as the megatons to megawatt program and the forced federal takeover nationwide with the deposition of used nuclear fuel. Greed and political agendas took priority over doing what is best for the nation. The idea the majority of the electricity from US nuclear power plants was from corrupt Russian uranium supporting a corrupt government.

    Mike Mulligan
    Hinsdale, NH

    Note: Moved by the Moderator

  4. Forrest J. Remick November 30, 2015 at 1:19 pm

    Good video.
    For the record: A decision was made in 1963 to convert the Penn State Nuclear Research Reactor from HEU to LEU. This was completed in 1966, which I believe was the first such conversion of a research reactor in the US (World????)

  5. Nikohl Vandel November 30, 2015 at 11:58 am

    The PROBLEM isn’t our creativity, it’s our waste. Without recycling and using all the power we are given from the earth and her gifts, we are not effective as a species and now that ineffectiveness is threatening out survival. #fuqafukushima has taught us our entire old way needs to stop before another accident happens again. If we can survive Fukushima’s continual meltdown, we need not worry about two of them at once. #ShutDownDiabloCanyon, please. I LOVE these articles, I learn a lot more about the nuclear industry. Thank you. Hugs.

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