Closing the Gaps
Securing High Enriched Uranium in the
Former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe
by Robert L. Civiak
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Executive Summary
Introduction
Proposal 1
Proposal 2
Proposal 3
Conclusion
Appendix A
Appendix B
Notes
Acronyms and Abbreviations
Glossary

Executive Summary

Introduction

This report presents three proposals to expand existing programs for reducing foreign stockpiles of high-enriched uranium (HEU), the material of choice for terrorists seeking nuclear weapons. Under the first proposal, the United States government would pay Russia to double the current rate at which it transforms HEU that has been removed from nuclear weapons, into low-enriched uranium (LEU), which is too dilute for weapons use. The additional LEU would be stored in Russia and eventually sold for use as nuclear power plant fuel under an existing agreement, which this proposal would build upon. Under the second proposal, the United States would expand its efforts and incentives for nuclear institutes in Russia to reduce -- or preferably eliminate -- their use and stocks of HEU. The HEU would be consolidated with larger stockpiles at other facilities and possibly be blended to LEU. Under the third proposal, the United States would provide more help to institutions in Russia and elsewhere, that depend upon research reactors for their work, to replace their HEU fuel with high-density LEU fuel.

Implementation of these three proposals would significantly reduce the risk that terrorists or other groups might divert HEU for use in nuclear weapons. All three are low cost options that could be started and would produce results quickly.

Russia and other nations of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) present a serious risk that a nuclear weapon or nuclear material could be diverted for malevolent purposes. The economic and political collapse of the Soviet Union created a formidable challenge to keeping its nuclear weapons and materials under adequate control. Individuals and groups have attempted to steal uranium or plutonium from sites in the FSU dozens of times during the past ten years, and in several incidents, a kilogram or more of weapons-usable material has been stolen or lost. In January 2001, a bipartisan task force chaired by former Senate majority leader, Howard Baker, and former White House counsel, Lloyd Cutler concluded:

The most urgent unmet national security threat to the United States today is the danger that weapons of mass destruction or weapons-usable material in Russia could be stolen, sold to terrorists or hostile nation states, and used against American troops abroad or citizens at home.

There have been no confirmed reports of successful thefts of a complete nuclear weapon or sufficient nuclear material to make one. However, given the inadequate Soviet-era record keeping for nuclear material stocks, there is no way to know for sure that significant diversions have not already occurred. If they have not, without prompt action, it may only be a matter of time before they do.

A Russian army officer oversees ICBM dismantlement at a Pervomaysk, Ukraine missile base (1995).

Nuclear materials present a greater opportunity for terrorists than intact nuclear weapons, because their security is generally poorer. Soviet nuclear weapons have all been consolidated in Russia and are guarded by highly trained professional security forces. Nuclear weapons are relatively large, heavy objects that are not easily stolen. They come in discrete units that are easily counted. Contrary to the numerous thefts of nuclear materials, there are no known cases of theft or attempted theft of actual nuclear weapons.

HEU is of particular concern, because it is the material of choice for terrorists. Even though it takes at least three times as much HEU as plutonium to make a nuclear weapon, HEU can be used in rudimentary nuclear weapon designs, for which plutonium cannot be used. HEU is less radioactive and therefore less dangerous to handle than plutonium, making it easier for terrorists to transport, store, and fashion into a weapon. In addition, there is six times as much HEU as plutonium in Russia, and it is located at many more sites.

Three Proposals for Expanding Efforts to Reduce HEU Stockpiles in Russia

In 1993, the United States agreed to purchase Low-Enriched Uranium (LEU) derived from 500 metric tons of HEU from dismantled Russian nuclear weapons. This agreement, commonly referred to as "the HEU deal", has proven to be one of the most successful of all US-Russian nonproliferation programs. Since 1993, about 140 metric tons of Russian weapons-origin HEU has been blended into LEU. This "blending" process involves mixing HEU with other forms of uranium in order to convert it to LEU. The benefit of this conversion is that LEU, unlike HEU, does not constitute a proliferation threat.

However, the implementation of the HEU deal is limited by the rate at which LEU can be sold without disrupting the international market for nuclear fuel. Under the current schedule, the full 500 tons of HEU will not be eliminated until 2013. Furthermore, if all Russian nuclear weapons scheduled for retirement are dismantled, there will be hundreds of tons of additional excess HEU in storage. Finally, a significant portion of Russia's HEU does not come from nuclear weapons and so is not covered under the HEU deal. This material is located at storage, research, nuclear fuel processing, and other facilities that generally have less security than storage sites for nuclear weapons and weapons-origin material.

We propose the following:

Proposal 1: Rapid Blend-Down of All Excess Russian Weapons-Origin HEU

We recommend that the Administration seek to expand the existing HEU agreement with Russia based on the following elements.

  • Speed up HEU conversion. The United States will pay Russia its costs, plus a modest incentive payment, to blend an additional 30 metric tons per year of HEU from nuclear weapons to 19.9-percent enriched LEU using natural uranium as a blendstock.
  • Make sure the LEU does not disrupt the international market. The 19.9-percent enriched LEU will remain in Russia, without further blend-down, until at least 500 metric tons of HEU have been blended into LEU under the terms of the existing HEU agreement.
  • Arrange Future LEU Transactions. The United States will agree to purchase, and Russia will agree to sell, the LEU once it has gone through an additional downblending step from 19.9-percent enriched LEU to fuel grade material. The pricing for this arrangement will be worked out separately from the framework agreement, as is done under the current HEU deal.

This proposal would double the current rate of blend-down of excess weapons-origin HEU. Such an increase would be straightforward and could be accomplished for about $40-60 million per year to cover the cost of the blending and of providing the incentives for Russia to carry it out. The financial incentives and other benefits of the proposed expanded blend-down may be sufficient for Russia to increase its total HEU downblending goals by 200-to-300 metric tons. Such an expansion of the existing HEU deal would be a significant achievement, and even greater reductions might be possible. However, larger reductions in Russia's HEU holdings would eventually impinge upon the size of its nuclear weapons stockpile or on HEU reserves that it plans to hold for potential use in nuclear weapons. As HEU reductions approach the limit of excess Russian HEU, the Russian government is unlikely to continue to down-blend its holdings without a reciprocal agreement from the United States. The US must address the issue of reciprocity if it wants to obtain the security and arms control benefits of deeper reductions in Russian HEU stockpiles.

Proposal 2: Remove HEU Stockpiles from Smaller, Less Secure Facilities

We recommend a number of measures to enhance the US Department of Energy's (DOE) efforts to encourage Russia to consolidate broadly distributed, poorly secured HEU into a few well-guarded facilities. The security of HEU would be significantly enhanced if it were removed from smaller, less secure, civilian facilities in the FSU, with a focus on the facilities that present the greatest risk of nuclear materials diversion.

Under the existing HEU deal, Russia must derive the LEU it sells to the United States from nuclear weapons. There is no question that downblending and selling this material improves its security and provides a long-term benefit for arms control. Nevertheless, stockpiles of HEU in small research facilities, with fewer resources for security, pose a greater immediate risk of diversion and should be given an even higher priority for elimination. According to the Department of Energy's 2003 budget request to Congress, "civilian sites contain approximately 35 tons of the most vulnerable, proliferation concern material. These facilities are located in densely populated areas throughout the Russian Federation and the Newly Independent States and are considered to be the most likely target for proliferants seeking weapon useable material through either abrupt theft or protracted diversion."

In 1999, the DOE and the Russian Ministry for Atomic Energy (Minatom) established the Materials Consolidation and Conversion (MCC) Project to reduce the complexity and the costs of securing Russian HEU. The approach of the MCC Project is to move HEU from smaller facilities to two large Minatom facilities with downblending capabilities, blend the HEU to 19.9-percent LEU, and store it at those facilities. The Department of Energy pays the blending facilities a fee for each kilogram of 19.9-percent LEU they produce. Unfortunately, DOE has little say in determining where the HEU to be downblended comes from - that decision is ultimately left to the Russian blending facilities. As a result, the most vulnerable facilities do not necessarily get targeted first.

The take home message is that DOE must take a more active role than the current MCC project allows for, specifically in setting priorities to work with the facilities most vulnerable to theft and in site-by-site planning to remove HEU stockpiles from those facilities. DOE should tailor specific packages of assistance to individual institutes in Russia and other nations of the FSU to provide the appropriate incentives for the removal of their HEU stockpiles. DOE should offer larger payments and additional incentives to sites that completely eliminate their HEU stockpiles.

We recommend that the Department of Energy:

  • Prepare a comprehensive list of facilities in Russia and other states of the FSU that may be candidates for HEU reductions or removal
  • Assign an American project manager for each facility
  • Target facilities that are the highest priority to the US for HEU reduction and elimination
  • Designate a senior official to negotiate tailored packages of incentives on a site-by-site basis
  • Provide an appropriate incentive for Russia to take back spent HEU fuel from research reactors outside of Russia

Most of our recommendations are for policy changes that would cost little to implement. However, we also recommend that annual funding for DOE's Materials Consolidation and Conversion project be twice the Administration's 2003 request of $27 million. The additional funds, if maintained for three years, would be sufficient to remove all HEU from high priority facilities within that time.

Proposal 3: Replace HEU Fuel in Soviet-Built Research and Test Reactors with LEU Fuel

In the third proposal, we recommend expanding existing efforts to help organizations with Soviet-designed research reactors replace HEU fuel with high-density LEU fuel. Thus, research institutes can continue to operate the nuclear reactors crucial to their work while eliminating a potential source of nuclear weapons materials.

Russia has approximately forty operational, research reactors and critical assemblies with HEU cores. There are also three such reactors in former Soviet republics and several others in operation elsewhere. Unused or slightly used fuel cores at these facilities represent attractive targets to terrorists or nations seeking to obtain HEU for nuclear weapons. Spent HEU fuel is less attractive, however, because it is radioactive and, therefore, dangerous to handle. Nevertheless, weapons-useable uranium can still be extracted from spent research reactor fuel, especially after it has had many years to cool. These uranium stocks can be eliminated as targets for proliferants if the reactors are converted from HEU fuel to non-weapons useable LEU fuel --or shut down if they are no longer needed-- and if all HEU-based fresh and spent fuels at those sites are moved to larger, more secure facilities within Russia.

A US-funded program in Russia and a Argonne National Laboratories is currently developing high-density LEU fuels that are similar to HEU in their performance capabilities but can be used without the security threat that HEU poses. Under this proposal, the United States would accelerate the research program and facilitate the transition of research reactors to LEU fuel.

We recommend expanding efforts to replace HEU fuel in Soviet-built research and test reactors with LEU fuel. This will require:

  • Increasing support for research programs to develop higher density LEU fuels
  • Providing funds for at least the initial LEU fuel cores as an incentive for reactor operators to convert
  • Making payments to Russia to take back Soviet-supplied spent fuel and unused fresh fuel from other countries

An increase over current appropriations of less than $20 million per year, for the next few years, could be sufficient to fund the conversion of all but one or two of the highest power Soviet-built, HEU-fueled reactors and the return of all HEU fuels to Russia by 2010.

Implementation of all three of these proposals would significantly reduce the risk that terrorists or other groups would divert HEU for use in nuclear weapons. All three cost relatively little, and none of them pose insurmountable policy challenges that would obstruct their implementation. They are the low hanging fruit. They can be picked now while other efforts continue to address some of the more challenging long-term problems. We estimate that adopting all of our proposals would cost about $100 million per year for the first three years and $50-90 million for another five to ten years, depending on how much weapons-origin HEU is eventually downblended under the first proposal.