WASHINGTON (AP) _ International inspectors began overseeing Monday the conversion of U.S. uranium used for nuclear weapons into fuel for power plants.
``A new page in the history of nuclear arms control is being written,″ Energy Secretary Federico Pena said in announcing the inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
``For the first time, international monitors are witnessing a nuclear weapon state take weapons-usable uranium from its military program and transform it into fuel for heating homes and lighting cities.″
Converting excess weapons-grade uranium into fuel sold to power companies has been under way for some time.
Already, Pena said, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. is using the marble-sized pellets at its Calvert Cliffs, Md., Commercial Nuclear Power Plant.
But Monday was the first time international monitors could see the process at the department’s Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon, Ohio.
``IAEA monitoring provides confidence to the international community that nuclear reductions are moving forward and will be irreversible,″ Pena contended.
In addition to monitoring by sophisticated and secure IAEA equipment at the Portsmouth facility, IAEA inspectors will make random biweekly visits beginning Dec. 17. The conversion is expected to be completed by August 1998.
Initially, the IAEA will inspect the conversion of 3.5 tons of uranium, part of the 174 tons President Clinton has said the U.S. military no longer needs. All 174 tons eventually will be made available for IAEA monitoring.
Pena noted the United States was the first country with nuclear weapons to declare that it had an excess of nuclear material and now is the first to permit international inspections.
He renewed his challenge to other nuclear powers to join in reducing weapons stockpiles.
Russia has agreed to dilute 500 tons of weapons-usable uranium and sell it to the United States for commercial use over the next 20 years. Pena said Russia, the United States and the IAEA now are trying to come to an agreement for the agency to monitor both countries’ excess nuclear materials.