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Stray Uranium, Corralled

While the United States is rightly concerned about nuclear material falling into the hands of terrorists, it's having a hard time keeping a lot of it secure.

About 130 research reactors in 40 countries use highly enriched uranium (HEU), the simplest material from which to make a bomb. Most don't have enough HEU to build one, but about 24 do - and experts say many of those reactors are disturbingly insecure.

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So far, the Bush administration - not the first to confront the problem - has succeeded in removing HEU from two insecure sites. It worked with Russia, Romania, and the International Atomic Energy Agency to remove 30 pounds of weapons-grade uranium from an insecure Romanian reactor in mid-September. The US paid for flying the material to Russia, its source, where it will be converted to a form that cannot make bombs.

The transfer was the second in which the US and Russia have cooperated: Last year, they removed 100 pounds of HEU from an insecure institute in the former Yugoslavia.

While both these moves are cause for celebration, and the world is much safer because of them, there's a long way to go. At this rate, the last batch of HEU won't be secured until about 2025. That's too long to wait.

Several obstacles block faster action. Some governments and facilities don't want to part with the uranium. For its part, Russia has yet to approve an umbrella agreement to receive the fuel from Soviet-built reactors in other countries - meaning each removal must be negotiated separately.

To speed up the securing of this dangerous material, the US must consolidate its various programs to address the danger. Most important, it must increase the incentives - that usually means money - for insecure research facilities to shut down, convert to lower-grade fuel, or surrender US-supplied HEU.

Bills to create a five-year program to obtain and neutralize insecure HEU are moving through both houses of Congress. Lawmakers should enact them before leaving town this fall.

Meanwhile, President Bush called in his UN speech last week for member states to criminalize the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and to implement controls on the export of sensitive materials. And he announced that 11 nations are preparing to search planes, ships, trains, and trucks carrying suspect cargo, and to seize shipments that raise proliferation concerns - an action taken with an eye on North Korea.

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Now the world's wealthiest nations must make a political and financial commitment to follow through.