Keeping Track of Uranium

Tacked onto the defense authorization bill is an amendment approved by the Senate that prompts this reaction: You mean the US isn't doing this already?

It's hard to believe, but, despite September 11, neither the US nor the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has a comprehensive database that tracks the world's highly enriched uranium, nor a complete assessment of the security and terrorist threat that this and other fissile material pose.

Highly enriched uranium is the easiest material to use to construct an atomic bomb. Particularly vulnerable are the roughly 135 research nuclear reactors - reactors not used for power generation but for materials testing, research, and medicine - still operating with highly enriched uranium in more than 40 countries.

At many of these reactors, which sprang up in places like Vietnam and Ghana as part of the cold war export of the nuclear age, security is lax - nothing more than a guard and fence. Most sites don't have enough material for one bomb, but even at sites that do, security needs to be improved.

Dozens of US and international databases track pieces of this picture, and various programs have been established to assist in securing the material. In recent years, fissile material has been successfully removed from Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Libya.

A bipartisan amendment passed by the Senate last week tasks the Department of Energy with compiling a comprehensive view of the problem and prioritizing the most urgent cases, and granting the department the authority to accelerate and coordinate the security and/or removal of such material.

The president reportedly backs the amendment, which would fill a gaping hole in nuclear security. The sooner it becomes law, the better.

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