Monday, November 24th, 2014

The Obameter

Phase out highly enriched uranium (HEU) from the civil sector


"HEU is not needed for the vast majority of civilian purposes and most reactors using HEU should be converted to operate on lowenriched fuel that cannot be used in nuclear weapons or shut down so that terrorists cannot get their hands on it. With Barack Obama and Joe Biden's leadership, the U.S. will lead the effort to remove HEU from vulnerable research reactor sites around the world, assist in the conversion process, give unneeded facilities incentives to shut down, enhance physical protection measures pending HEU removal, and blend down recovered civil HEU for use as power reactor fuel."


Updates

Myriad efforts aimed at phasing out highly enriched uranium

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to remove highly enriched uranium (called HEU) from "vulnerable research reactor sites around the world, assist in the conversion process, give unneeded facilities incentives to shut down, enhance physical protection measures pending HEU removal, and blend down recovered civil HEU for use as power reactor fuel.”

Unlike its low-enriched cousin, highly enriched uranium can be used to make nuclear weapons in addition to being used for energy and research purposes. So a key goal of arms control advocates has been the removal of HEU from nonmilitary sites where it could be converted to military use.

As we previously noted, this effort did not start under Obama, but his administration has continued to execute it.

At the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit in March 2012, attended by 53 heads of state, participant states pledged to speed up their HEU reduction efforts, with several committed to converting their isotope-producing reactors by 2015, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative. The United States announced that it had "downblended” 10.5 metric tons of HEU since the previous summit two years earlier, and that it had assisted 10 other nations with the removal and elimination of more than 400 kilograms of HEU.

Meanwhile, the Global Threat Reduction Initiative -- a federal office whose mission includes converting research reactors and isotope production facilities from highly enriched uranium to low enriched uranium -- released some of its accomplishments on Nov. 7, 2012, including the following activities since 2009:
   
• Removing 1376.1 kilograms of HEU and plutonium (enough material for approximately 55 nuclear weapons).

• Removing all weapons-usable nuclear material from nine countries and areas, including: Romania, Taiwan, Libya, Turkey, Chile, Serbia, Mexico, Sweden and Ukraine.
   
• Completing physical protection upgrades at more than 1,000 buildings housing enough material for approximately 10,000 dirty bombs
   
• Converting to low enriched uranium fuel or verifying the shutdown of 20 highly enriched uranium research reactors in 12 countries, including Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Japan, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, and the United States.
   
• Accelerating the establishment of a reliable supply of the medical isotope molybdenum-99 produced without the use of highly enriched uranium by establishing partnerships with South Africa, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Another program that is continuing is a joint U.S.-Russia effort called "Megatons to Megawatts,” which has downblended 463.5 megatons of weapons-grade uranium since 1994.

Another joint U.S.-Russia effort is analyzing the potential conversion of Russian research reactors from HEU fuel to low enriched uranium. In June 2012, Russia and the United States announced that they completed the first stage of the work. These studies were discussed in 2008 and an implementing agreement was signed Dec. 7, 2010.

"The U.S. has made a commitment to convert all research reactors that currently use HEU fuel to LEU once a suitable high-density fuel is developed, and it has already converted all reactors that do not need this high-density fuel,” said Kingston Reif of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.”

Between 2010 and 2012, the U.S. spent $72 million on research and development for such a fuel, according to federal data. The United States is partnering with Belgium, France and South Korea on this effort.

Securing and converting all highly enriched uranium is a long-term task, but we think the array of programs and the achievements made suggest that the Obama administration is taking the challenge seriously. This is enough  to earn a Promise Kept.

Sources:

National Nuclear Security Administration, "Quadrilateral Cooperation on High-density Low-enriched Uranium Fuel Production: Fact Sheet," Mar 27, 2012

International Panel on Fissile Materials, "Russia and the United States to work on reactor conversion," June 26, 2012

State Department, "Nuclear Security Summit National Progress Report," Nov. 16, 2012

Nuclear Threat Initiative, "Civilian HEU Reduction and Elimination Resource Collection," Aug. 1, 2012

Nuclear Threat Initiative, International Politics of Civilian HEU Elimination, July 17, 2011

National Nuclear Security Administration, "Fact Sheet: GTRI: Reducing Nuclear Threats,” Nov. 7, 2012

U.S. Enrichment Corp., "Megatons to Megawatts," accessed Nov. 30, 2012

National Nuclear Security Administration, "U.S., Russian Federation Sign Joint Statement on Reactor Conversion," Jun. 26, 2012

Email interview with Kingston Reif, director of nuclear non-proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, Nov. 21, 2012

Building on progress made under Bush

While running for president, Barack Obama said "the U.S. will lead the effort to remove [highly enriched uranium, or HEU] from vulnerable research reactor sites around the world, assist in the conversion process, give unneeded facilities incentives to shut down, enhance physical protection measures pending HEU removal, and blend down recovered civil HEU for use as power reactor fuel."

Unlike its low-enriched cousin, highly enriched uranium can be used to make nuclear weapons in addition to being used for energy and research purposes. So a key goal of arms control advocates has been the removal of HEU from nonmilitary sites where it could be converted to military use.

The main vehicle for doing this in the United States is the National Nuclear Security Administration's Global Threat Reduction Initiative, which began in 2004. GTRI staffers have traveled around the world and assisted in adapting reactors that use HEU to LEU, shut down other HEU reactors, upgraded security and returned HEU from former Soviet states to Russia.

But Obama can't take total credit for this. The effort started under President George W. Bush, and Obama is just building off his predecessor's work.

So has Obama done anything unique?

Yep. One of the major uses of HEU is in the creation of molybdenum-99, a medical isotope used in most diagnostic procedures. The United States has traditionally imported most of its molybdenum-99 from Europe and Canada, where suppliers use weapons-grade uranium in its production. The House of Representatives and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee have both passed the American Medical Isotopes Production Act of 2009, which would authorize the Energy Department to spend $163 million over the next five years to support the development of molybdenum-99 using only low-enriched uranium. The money, says Charles Ferguson, the president of the Federation of American Scientists and a nuclear expert, should "level the medical playing field" and make it easier for companies who use or switch to low-enriched uranium to succeed.

So Obama is continuing some work done by the previous administration, and expanding upon it. We rate this promise In The Works.

Sources:

National Nuclear Security Administration, GTRI: Reducing Nuclear Threats, January 2009

Interview with Charles Ferguson, President of the Federation of American Scientists, January 6, 2010

Congressional Quarterly, Medical Isotope Bill Approved By Senate Panel, By Kate Davidson, December 16, 2009