Research reactors seen as security risk

In Cambridge, Mass., at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a nuclear reactor emits an eerie blue glow 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Its fuel is 93 percent uranium 235 — the high-purity uranium it takes to energize an atom bomb and exactly what the West fears that Tehran wants to produce.

The facility at MIT is just one of some 130 civilian research reactors around the globe that use highly enriched uranium. Nuclear experts say that running them takes tons of bomb-grade fuel, enough to build many hundreds of nuclear warheads. And most are lightly guarded.

That is only one of the challenges that President Barack Obama and dozens of world leaders have been struggling with during a nuclear security summit meeting held in Washington on Monday and Tuesday. The agenda aims at bolstering safeguards on the world’s nuclear arms, as well as a range of sensitive materials and sites, like the MIT reactor.

“We must ensure that terrorists never acquire a nuclear weapon,” Obama told cheering crowds in Prague a year ago. “So today I am announcing a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years. We will set new standards, expand our cooperation with Russia, pursue new partnerships to lock down these sensitive materials.”

The research reactors are seen by Obama and his aides as particularly vulnerable to terrorist attack, and therefore particularly difficult to secure in four years.

Typically, the civilian sites employ few of the standard military protections, like barbed wire, checkpoints, camouflage, heavily armed guards and antiaircraft guns. Instead, they tend to encourage easy use by university, industry and other researchers. The MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, for instance, welcomes college and high school students and gives public tours. It is currently working with General Electric and Hitachi to see if the small reactor can produce medical isotopes for Boston-area hospitals.

“We’re quite optimistic we can supply a niche market,” David Moncton, director of the MIT reactor, said in an interview.

Research reactors that run on highly enriched uranium are, in part, a legacy of the Cold-War ambitions of Washington and Moscow to promote atoms for peace. They were offered by the two superpowers as prizes to woo client states. Today, nations are trying to control and diminish the threat of terrorist theft by enhancing site security, shutting down obsolete reactors and replacing the bomb-grade fuel with low-enriched varieties.

Earlier this year, for example, experts from the National Nuclear Security Administration in Washington conducted a sensitive operation in Chile to remove highly enriched fuel from two research reactors. But an 8.8 magnitude earthquake struck amid the delicate endeavor, throwing Chile into chaos and forcing the nuclear teams to improvise on how to remove the crated fuel.

The summit meeting intends to accelerate such efforts by creating a surge of financial and technical support that will push Obama’s four-year plan over the finish line.