MELISSA BLOCK, host:
That shipment we just heard about came from several reactors in Germany, that are no longer operating. But dozens of research reactors still run on the kind of fuel that can be used to make an atomic bomb. The U.S. and the old Soviet Union set them up during the Cold War as part of an effort to encourage the peaceful use of nuclear power and to build alliances. Since the 1980s, there have been a number of initiatives to secure the fuel and convert the reactors. Two and half years ago, the Bush administration pledged to make it a priority.
NPR's David Kestenbaum brings up to date.
DAVID KESTENBAUM: In May of 2004, the Bush administration did the sort of thing that happens a lot in Washington but doesn't always work. A group of bunch of sluggish programs together and gave them a new name, the Global Threat Reduction Initiative. How well is it doing? The man in charge gives it high marks.
Mr. LINTON BROOKS (Administrator, National Nuclear Security Administration in the Department of Energy): I'm Linton Brooks. I'm the administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration in the Department of Energy.
KESTENBAUM: What grade do you give the Global Threat Reduction Initiative?
Mr. BROOKS: I think that they've just performed spectacularly.
KESTENBAUM: How about a letter grade?
Mr. BROOKS: Oh, A.
Mr. BROOKS: A, A-plus until the job is done, you don't want give anybody an A-plus. We've got a left to do but we're on schedule to do it.
KESTENBAUM: Brooks isn't exactly an impartial judge but outsiders have positive assessments as well.
Ms. ROSE GOTTEMOELLER (Director, Carnegie Moscow Center): I would give them a B-plus to be honest.
KESTENBAUM: This is Rose Gottemoeller, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center in Moscow. She ran non-proliferation programs at the Department of Energy under the Clinton administration. She says she sees more fuel from these reactors being sent back to Russia for safe storage. According to the Department of Energy, since the new initiative began two and half years ago, almost 750 pounds of highly enriched uranium has been sent back to Russia - enough for at least several bombs.
Do you sleep better at night now?
Ms. GOTTEMOELLER: I do. Yes, I do.
KESTENBAUM: In the same time, six reactors around the world have been converted so they run off low enriched uranium, though that still leaves 80 on the government's to-do list.
Ms. GOTTEMOELLER: This new global threat reduction initiative has really, I think, resulted in some more intensive efforts to convince countries to convert to low enrichment for their research reactors.
It's a hard sell, in many cases - an operator for research reactors says well, I'm doing quite nicely with my highly enriched uranium fuel. Why should I change? And so you really do have to make the case that's it's a proliferation threat.
KESTENBAUM: She says Russia has also been moving faster because of concerns over terrorism.
Matthew Bunn is a nuclear expert at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He says the initiative is doing reasonably well, but he says it doesn't cover all the reactors out there or all the bomb-grade nuclear fuel sitting around. If reactors aren't going to be converted, he says, they need to be better protected.
Professor MATTHEW BUNN (Kennedy School of Government): Very often, these research reactors have very modest levels of security. Often, they're on university campuses where it isn't really practical to have, you know, multi-layered fences with intrusion detectors, and guys with machine guns and so on.
In many cases, they have essentially a chain length fence and a night watchman as their security, even though they have potential nuclear bomb material on sight.
KESTENBAUM: Two of the recently converted research reactors are in the U.S., one, at the University of Florida, and one, at Texas A&M University. Others were in Libya, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic.
Prof. BUNN: People need to understand the importance of what has been done. Every one of these buildings that doesn't have highly enriched uranium in it means one last opportunity for terrorists to get their hands on the essential ingredients of a nuclear bomb.
KESTENBAUM: One thing that global threat reduction initiative has not managed to really do is secure the used nuclear fuel from the research reactors built by the Soviet Union. These spent fuel rods are still out there. Bunn says they can also be used to make an atomic bomb.
Prof. BUNN: These research reactor fuel elements are small. They are radioactive when they've been used. But they're not intensely radioactive. A suicidal thief could easily pick them up with his bare hands, put them in a backpack, carry them out to a waiting truck and would get a big dose of radiation, but not a big enough to dose to disable him or prevent him from carrying out that theft.
KESTENBAUM: Some U.S. origin spent fuel has been returned to the States. Bunn doesn't want to give the program an overall letter grade, but as pass or fail, he gives it a pass.
Prof. BUNN: We haven't yet had a catastrophe. But I'm concerned that we need to move much faster to reduce the danger that we still face of a terrorist nuclear catastrophe.
KESTENBAUM: He says that will take more money and political will.
David Kestenbaum, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.