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Us dispersed uranium 43 countries { March 7 2004 }

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March 7, 2004
U.S. Lags in Recovering Fuel Suitable for Nuclear Arms

WASHINGTON, March 6 As the United States presses Iran and other countries to shut down their nuclear weapons development programs, government auditors have disclosed that the United States is making little effort to recover large quantities of weapons-grade uranium enough to make roughly 1,000 nuclear bombs that the government dispersed to 43 countries over the last several decades.

Among the countries that received the highly enriched uranium, generally with the expectation that it would be returned, were Iran and Pakistan. The chief nuclear weapons expert in Pakistan recently made the stunning disclosure that his network had secretly sold uranium and nuclear technology to Libya, Iran and North Korea.

The auditors said they found that "large quantities of U.S.-produced highly enriched uranium were out of U.S. control."

The bomb-grade uranium was loaned, leased or sold to dozens of countries starting in the 1950's under the Eisenhower administration's Atoms for Peace program, which was intended to help other countries develop nuclear energy facilities or pursue scientific or medical initiatives. The dispersals continued until 1988. But the government's effort to recover the uranium, either in the form in which it was delivered or as spent fuel, was lackadaisical, the report suggests.

In the last 50 years, the report says, the government has recovered approximately 2,600 kilograms (about 5,700 pounds) of 17,500 kilograms dispersed, leaving almost 15,000 kilograms still in foreign hands. That remains true even as the Bush administration warns that Al Qaeda and possibly other terrorist organizations are trying to obtain nuclear materials to make a bomb.

In general, it takes about 10 kilograms of weapons-grade uranium to make a bomb.

Nuclear weapons experts say most of the exported uranium was weapons grade, and Thomas B. Cochran, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, estimated that the exported uranium material could make "about a thousand nuclear" weapons.

"It could be hundreds if the design was unsophisticated, or thousands if it was more advanced," he added.

Much of the uranium is in the hands of Western European or other allied nations, officials said. But the report, by the Energy Department's inspector general, says that about half of the uranium is in the hands of government agencies, universities or private companies in 12 countries that are "not expected to participate in the program" to return it. Among those countries are Iran, Pakistan, Israel, Mexico, Jamaica and South Africa. Reasons for declining to return the material vary; some of the uranium, for example, is in use at research universities that are loath to give it up.

Some of the report's findings were first reported in The Wall Street Journal on Feb. 13.

The Energy Department is in charge of recovering the uranium, but the effort is housed in the department's Environmental Management Program, an office that has been the subject of many stinging audits and self-evaluations in recent years that have criticized it as inefficient. The recovery program was placed there in 1996 because that office seemed best suited to manage the safe transport of any nuclear material that was returned, a senior department official said.

The failure to recover most of the uranium "shows a complete loss of perspective," said Steven Aftergood, a security expert at the Federation of American Scientists, an arms control group in Washington. "The failure to vigorously pursue it is a scandal. Few things are more important than this. It's a serious matter that has not been taken seriously."

Jeanne Lopatto, a spokeswoman for the Energy Department, said: "We agree with the findings of the I.G. report, none of which came as a surprise to us. In fact, long before the report came out, a working group" within the department "was studying the program and making recommendations for improvement. Our plan is in place to make this a more effective nonproliferation program."

The senior official said the Energy Department impaneled a working group last fall to address the problems. At that time, the inspector general had finished his investigation but had not published his report. It was issued Feb. 9. The working group recommended that the recovery program be taken out of the environmental office and put in another office more directly involved with nuclear proliferation problems, the official said.

Jon Wolfsthal, who ran the recovery program from 1995 to 1997, said one important reason so little uranium had been returned was that "we are charging these countries $5,000 a kilogram to get it back." The fee structure was set in 1996, to help pay for the program, he added.

The senior official said the department was likely to begin waiving the fee in many cases and offering other incentives he would not specify to encourage countries to return the uranium. He declined to be identified, Ms. Lopatto said, because that is what department policy requires.

The department's inspector general issued a similar report in 2002, saying the Energy Department had not made sufficient effort to recover nuclear fuel rods dispersed to other nations under the Atoms for Peace program. Those rods contained far smaller quantities of uranium, generally not enough to make a bomb.

Joel Brinkley reported from Washington for this article and William J. Broad from New York.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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