To counter nuclear terrorism, UN urges phasing out civilian use of high enriched uranium

19 June 2006

Amid clear signs that terrorists are trying to acquire nuclear material through criminal networks, the head of the United Nations atomic watchdog agency today called for urgent and more coherent global action to minimize the uses of and commerce in high enriched uranium (HEU), a main ingredient in nuclear weapons production.

“Although much has been achieved so far, much vulnerability remains,” International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei told the Conference on Minimization of Highly Enriched Uranium in the Civilian Nuclear Sector in Oslo, Norway.

“In recent years, the security and non-proliferation concerns associated with the potential uses of HEU for malicious and terrorist purposes have further highlighted the importance of this work,” he said in a message delivered by Special Assistant Vilmos Cserveny.

The measures he recommended include stepped-up joint efforts towards eventually eliminating the civilian use of HEU by addressing the remaining technical hurdles involved in switching to the use of low enriched uranium (LEU). HEU involves uranium enriched to 90 per cent or more, and nearly 100 civilian facilities around the world operate with such weapons-grade material.

But according to many experts, most if not all of the benefits obtained, such as isotope production that is vital to medical treatments, industrial productivity, water management and many other humanitarian uses, could also be achieved by using LEU while still ensuring a secure and effective path for nuclear research for peaceful purposes, he said.

Mr. ElBaradei also called on all countries to agree to stop producing fissile material for use in nuclear weapons. 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 down-blended, he added.

“By investing in these measures, we could alleviate proliferation concerns associated with the continued uses of HEU and reduce substantially the risk of nuclear terrorism,” he said.

He also reiterated his call for all enrichment operations to be brought under multinational control, making it far more difficult for any country to divert enriched uranium for use in weapons.

The IAEA cooperated with the Norwegian Government in preparing the conference, which brings together a wide spectrum of representatives of concerned governments, the nuclear industry, the nuclear research community, concerned non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and academic institutions.