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.