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Remarks by Administrator Thomas D’Agostino, National Nuclear Security Administration National Academies of Science and Russian Academy of Science Symposium on Reactor Conversion

June 08, 2011

Thank you very much for the invitation to join you today.  It is a great honor to be invited to speak before so many of the world’s leading experts on nuclear security. I would like to thank our hosts from the Russian Academy of Sciences here in Moscow and the U.S. National Academies for organizing this conference, and for offering me the opportunity to join you. 

I would also like to recognize our colleagues from the Russian government, in particular Rosatom Director General Kiriyenko.  Reducing nuclear dangers is a global challenge that requires a global response and strong partnerships.  At my organization – the National Nuclear Security Administration – we could hardly ask for a more outstanding partner than our friends and colleagues at Rosatom.   

I would also like to recognize and thank all of you who represent Russian and U.S. technical and academic organizations.  Science, technology and engineering are the core of everything we do.  I am grateful for the contributions all of you have made to science and to the U.S.-Russia nuclear security partnership. That partnership continues to grow.   It is stronger than ever. And it is vital to global peace and security, as well as the safety and security of our two nations.  

Our topic today is one that is vital to the nuclear security agenda outlined by our two presidents.  Minimizing the use of highly enriched uranium is a vital international security priority.  It is also an area in which the great minds gathered in this room can play a critical role.

Humankind’s relationship with the atom is a complicated one.  The same technologies that hold the key to lifesaving medical treatments or the promise of clean and abundant sources of energy also have the potential to bring about unthinkable dangers.  No one understands that paradox better than the people in this room.

We have a shared responsibility to ensure that we are pursuing the peaceful uses of the atom in a way that harnesses and minimizes its destructive potential.  As part of that mandate, it is vitally important for us to continue our joint efforts to convert HEU-fueled civilian facilities to operate with low enriched uranium. To meet this challenge, we must explore new and innovative technological approaches.  It is also a challenge that I think our two nations are unique capable of addressing together.  I am very pleased that our respective National Academies are applying their considerable expertise to meeting this challenge. 

The threat of terrorist organizations or individuals acquiring nuclear material for use in an improvised nuclear device is present and real.  It is, as President Obama said in his landmark speech in Prague in April 2009 the “most immediate and extreme threat to global security.”  Indeed, nothing could be more unthinkable than the impact of a single terrorist cell detonating a single improvised nuclear device here in Moscow or back home in Washington.

That is why our two President’s have worked together to implement an aggressive and unprecedented commitment to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years. 

I’m very happy to stand before you here today and say that Russia and the United States are leading this effort on multiple fronts.  Together, we have accelerated our efforts to secure, convert and remove U.S.-origin and Russian-origin HEU at facilities around the world.  Working together and with international partners, NNSA and Rosatom have completed 43 successful shipments since 2002, returning approximately 1,590 kilograms of HEU fresh and spent fuel to Russia from third countries.  That is the equivalent of over 60 nuclear weapons. 

In the last year alone, we worked closely with international partners to remove over 480 kilograms of Russian-origin HEU from several countries, including the Czech Republic, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and Serbia. 

We are working to strengthen our capacity to detect and deter nuclear smuggling.  At NNSA, last year we helped upgrade physical security at more than 185 buildings around the world that contained high-priority nuclear and radioactive material and provided radiation monitoring equipment at 13 major container seaports and approximately 140 international border crossings, airports and small seaports.  

In order to prevent terrorists from acquiring materials that could be used in a so-called “dirty bomb,” last year NNSA worked to recover approximately 4,000 radiological sources containing more than 50,000 decayed curies.

And, we are working with our international partners to minimize the use of HEU around the world wherever possible. Take, for example, the production of the medical isotope molybdenum-99.  Over the past two years, NNSA worked with South Africa to convert its Mo-99 production capability from high-enriched uranium (HEU) to LEU.  Last December, NNSA and Necsa – the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa -- announced that the first shipment of the medical isotope molybdenum-99 (Mo-99) produced with low enriched uranium (LEU) and approved for patient use had arrived in the United States. 

As you may know, there will be a one month outage of the NRU reactor in Canada, which currently provides much of the U.S. supply of Mo-99.  As a result of our successful partnership with South Africa, as much as one-third of the U.S. supply of Mo-99 during the Canadian outage will be Mo-99 produced using LEU targets. We intend to continue this trend of purchasing LEU based Mo-99 whenever possible. We believe that the US market—about half of the world’s market—will soon be supplied only by LEU based Mo-99 producers.

That brings me to the topic of our discussion today.  One immediate step that we agree all states can take to reduce global nuclear dangers is to where possible eliminate the need for highly enriched uranium in civilian applications worldwide by converting research reactors from HEU to LEU fuel.  

Each reactor converted reduces the amount of HEU in international commerce, reduces the global demand for HEU fuel, increases the demand for LEU fuel and thus greatly decreases the odds that the wrong people will gain possession of this dangerous material.  As the countries with by far the largest civilian nuclear complexes, the United States and Russia have a unique responsibility to lead in these efforts. 
Presidents Medvedev and Obama have led the way by putting HEU minimization at the forefront of their nuclear security agenda.  In their July 2009 Joint Statement on Nuclear Security Cooperation, our presidents noted the importance of HEU minimization and committed to support such efforts to the maximum extent possible by committing to conduct reactor conversion feasibility studies in the United States and Russia and continuing to cooperate in the development of new LEU fuels for future reactor conversions worldwide. 

Less than one year later, at the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit, Presidents Medvedev and Obama -- along with representatives of 45 other countries -- agreed to a Work Plan that reaffirmed the importance of converting research reactors and developing new LEU fuel technologies.  Together, these statements by our presidents represent an unprecedented high-level commitment to convert research reactors to the use of LEU fuel. 

Implicit in this commitment by our leaders is a call to all of us -- governments, non-governmental organizations, and individuals concerned with nuclear security -- to immediately take the concrete steps necessary to make our presidents’ words reality.  As part of that effort, in December 2010 the United States and Russia signed an Implementing Agreement to conduct joint studies to determine the feasibility of converting 6 research reactors in Russia.  Through our Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), NNSA is partnering with Rosatom to conduct these studies, which are expected to be completed in late 2011. 

Of course, these feasibility studies of 6 Russian research reactors will only bear fruit once the Russian government commits to convert these reactors.  I strongly urge Rosatom to make this commitment to convert these reactors and begin follow-on feasibility studies of additional reactors as soon as possible so that our teams may prepare to begin work on these activities once the current feasibility studies have concluded.

This work in Russia is taking place in parallel with our ongoing efforts in the United States to develop a new LEU fuel that will allow for the conversion of 6 U.S. high performance research reactors.  All research reactors in the United States that can be converted using existing qualified LEU fuel have been converted or verified as shutdown.  

We have already accomplished a great deal to fulfill our presidents’ vision, but there is still much more to be done.  For example, NNSA’s reactor conversion program is still working to convert two-thirds of the approximately 200 HEU-fueled civilian facilities worldwide.  We would like to accelerate these efforts even more. 

It is clear that strong cooperation between the United States and Russia will continue to be the key to success in all of these efforts.  The magnitude of the threat is the reason that our presidents have made HEU minimization a key part of multiple high-level statements on nuclear security. The strength of our partnership is the reason we have been able to accomplish so much in recent years. 

Together, our countries possess a unique nuclear history, unique nuclear complexes, and unique technical expertise that are unmatched anywhere else in the world.  Together, we possess approximately half of the HEU-fueled civilian facilities worldwide within our borders.  Together, we have some of the greatest scientific minds in the world working to enhance global security and keep our people safe.  And, together, we have already established a strong history of nuclear security and HEU minimization cooperation. 

We are in a moment now where we have unprecedented high-level political support for accelerating HEU minimization activities. We must continue to seize this moment as partners to set an example for the rest of the world. 

You at this conference will play an absolutely critical role in that process.  I thank each and every one of you for your participation in this effort.  I urge you all to continue your efforts to advance the cause of HEU minimization in your countries and within your respective organizations with the same dedication and vigilance that you have so far.  Your work is making a difference to global nuclear security, and to the security of your countries. 

I thank you for your dedication and hard work, and look forward to continued productive partnerships for years to come.  Thank you.