With the defeat of Senator Lisa Murkowski in Alaska, Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) is poised to become the top Republican on the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources at the start of the 112th Congress. There are many reasons why this development is troublesome, not the least of which is Senator Burr's irresponsible record on nuclear issues (which are under the committee's purview). In short, Burr was the brains behind a law that hindered American non-proliferation efforts and nuclear security. Because of this, Elaine Marshall needs your help retiring Richard Burr.
As Congress considered major energy legislation in 2003, then-Congressman Burr worked to include language in the bill (the "Burr Amendment") that loosened restrictions on the exportation of high-enriched uranium (HEU), also known as weapons-grade uranium, so that MDS Nordion, a Canadian medical isotope company, could avoid converting to costlier - albeit safer - production methods.
The problem with this legislation was that HEU is the most desirable kind of uranium for the construction of "dirty bombs." HEU can be converted into a bomb easily, without the use of a centrifuge or advanced equipment, and the security at the Canadian company was not up to U.S. standards. While the company makes isotopes that are important in modern medicine, they had promised to convert to low-enriched uranium in their production facilities. That promise was kept until Burr's amendment became a reality.
After 9/11, it seems unthinkable that a United States Senator would spearhead an effort to reduce American nuclear security, all for the benefit of a Canadian company. Nevertheless, the turn of events is hardly surprising given Burr's ties to the medical industry. Furthermore, in the election cycle previous to his work on the HEU amendment, he was in the top 2 percent of Congressmen who received money from the nuclear industry.
Though the 2003 bill stalled, the Burr Amendment language appeared in the original language of the 2005 energy bill; that is, until a bipartisan effort removed it before the bill was passed by the Senate. As a Senate intern, I was in the chamber for that vote; I had learned about the issue from a May 28th article in the Economist that discussed the pros and cons of the Burr Amendment, but ended strongly on the point that "what is beyond dispute is that, if the amendment goes through, more bomb-grade uranium will be free to travel around the world." I thought that once the Burr Amendment was removed from the Senate version of the bill, the subject was closed.
Unfortunately, I was wrong. Now a Senator, Richard Burr was one of the 14 Senators on the conference committee tasked with reconciling the different versions of the bill passed by the House and the Senate. While the conference committee deliberated, the Burr Amendment language made it back into the final bill, and it became law when President Bush signed the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
Below is the summary from page 41 of the CRS Report:
Medical Isotope Production (Sec. 630). Highly enriched uranium (HEU) can be exported to Canada, Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands for production of medical isotopes in nuclear reactors. Those countries are exempt from requirements (under Section 134 of the Atomic Energy Act) that they agree to switch to low-enriched uranium (LEU) as soon as possible and that LEU fuel for their reactors be under active development. Instead, those countries must agree to convert to suitable LEU fuel when it becomes available. NRC must review existing security requirements for HEU used for medical isotope production and impose additional requirements if necessary. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is to study the potential availability and cost of medical isotopes produced without HEU. If the Secretary of Energy certifies that U.S. medical isotope demand can be reliably and economically met with production facilities that do not use HEU, NRC may no longer grant the export exemptions.
Though the Burr Amendment went largely unnoticed by the traditional media, there was no dearth of concern from nuclear scientists and nuclear non-proliferation advocates. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, who most people know as the keepers of the Nuclear "Doomsday Clock," was unequivocal in a 2006 article: "Enactment of the Burr amendment threatens to undermine the longstanding U.S. goal of phasing out commerce in bomb-grade uranium, thereby undermining the war on terror." Even if the amendment was more bad precedent than bad policy, Burr might as well have personally pushed the minute hand on the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight.
In a recent contest on BlueNC, the Burr Amendment was voted the most significant legislative accomplishment of Burr's career. James offered $250 to anyone - Republican or Democrat - who wanted to submit an example of Burr's legislative work. My entry was one of only four. Was that because Burr is so ineffective that his record is correspondingly thin? Is it because he likes to do most of his work behind the scenes on conference committees?
Those reasons are just idle speculation. The fact of the matter is that I made the easiest $250 of my life because a bunch of smart, informed bloggers (that's you guys) had trouble finding anything of substance in Senator Burr's record, and couldn't find anything bigger than the Burr Amendment. Burr doesn't have much of a record to stand on, and what's in there isn't stuff most Americans would stand behind. Perhaps that's why I uncovered how the National Republican Senatorial Committee raised money by calling Burr's opponent the incumbent in the race. The Burr Amendment isn't great fundraising fodder unless everyone who reads your Google Ads works for a foreign radioisotope company.
It's clear that the only way to keep Burr off the Energy Committee is to send him home to North Carolina. Elaine Marshall is good people, and she'd make a great Senator. Please do what you can to help her retire Richard Burr.
Disclaimer: This post is my opinion and mine alone. It is not authorized by any candidate or political committee. I hold no position in the Elaine Marshall Campaign.