Uranium for Everyone

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I realize not everyone dashes to the mailbox to see if the latest issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has arrived yet, but there’s a story in this month’s magazine that’s worth reading. Basically, back in the day, the United States used to export highly-enriched uranium (HEU) to other countries for various civilian purposes, until discovering that the stuff can very easily be used to make nuclear bombs, should some crafty terrorist get it into his or her head to do so. No good. So we switched to exporting low-enriched uranium (LEU) instead, which can be used for the same civilian purposes, but can’t be used for nuclear weaponry.

Anyway, so it’s pretty much LEU for everyone nowadays, except that four major international producers of medical isotopes, which are used for diagnostic procedures and chemical treatments, still buy about 85 kilograms of HEU a year from the United States to make their isotopes. That poses something of a proliferation threat, especially since medical facilities aren’t exactly the most secure of sites. Congress, for its part, has tried to introduce laws to force these companies to switch to LEU, which is much safer, to produce their isotopes—something that is technically feasible.

But. These producers are lazy, and in 2003, they successfully lobbied to loosen that requirement in the energy bill, which Bush signed into law last year. So basically, thanks to business lobbying, the United States continues to send bomb-grade uranium around the world—indeed, as a result of the bill, it will probably increase exports of HEU—to unsecured locations. Sweet dreams, everyone.

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