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How the Nuclear Security Summits Foster Scientific Innovation

March 24, 2016

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Guest blog by Charles Powell

As world leaders agree on priorities and launch new initiatives through the so-called “gift basket” process at next week’s Nuclear Security Summit, they will be doing more than just setting global policythey will be fostering future scientific cooperation.

Collaboration on science and technology already grounds much of the work on nuclear and radiological security. After all, it would be impossible to make progress on security without addressing related technical challenges and developing solutions.

For example, a main goal of the Summit process has been for states to minimize their use of highly enriched uranium (HEU). But those working to achieve that goal have to understand what it actually means to reduce the use of HEU. How easily can the work be done, and what are the implications? The answers are slightly complicated.

For the most part, civilian HEU is used to power research reactors for scientific endeavors and in the production of medical isotopes for nuclear medicine.

Because the design of nuclear research reactors is tied to the design of the nuclear fuel that powers them, replacing the fuel may require a complex physical conversion of the reactor vessel itself. This conversion process has already taken place at 68 of the world’s research reactors through a number of U.S. and IAEA programs. Certain research reactors, however, require higher neutron fluxes than others and cannot maintain the same performance if they are converted to use existing LEU fuel technologies. But innovation is solving this problem: a technology now in development known as high-density low-enriched uranium-molybdenum (U-Mo) fuel has shown promising results for these reactors and, once qualified and made commercially available, could serve as a viable replacement for HEU.

At the 2012 Seoul Summit, Belgium, France, the United States, and the Republic of Korea joined a gift basket paving the way for cooperation on the development and use of the high-density U-Mo LEU fuel. This gift basket on scientific cooperation was unusual in that it identified specific steps, such as the transfer of nuclear material between countries, to facilitate the research and development efforts. At the 2014 Summit in the Hague, Germany signed on to support the research as well.

Reducing HEU in medical isotope production is another summit goal—and one that is likely to be achieved more quickly. For example, molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), a medical isotope sold commercially for the production of the diagnostic tracer technitium-99m, is made by irradiating “targets” of HEU. However, a number of alternative technologies have been demonstrated or are in development to manufacture Mo-99 without HEU. In addition, since there are only a handful of Mo-99 producers worldwide, phasing out HEU can be accomplished through a concentrated effort with a few suppliers.

The Summit process has already made some headway on this front. In Seoul in 2012, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and the United States joined a gift basket to pledge to transition the production of Mo-99 from the use of HEU to non-HEU-based processes, and the major international producers are all well underway in doing so.

Innovations in science and technology can underpin advancements in nuclear security – and cooperation on science and technology can advance the cause of nuclear security.

Charles Powell is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow with NTI’s Material Security and Minimization team. Follow him on Twitter @chpwll.