United State Global Threat Reduction Programme takes giant steps, NNSA says

Trasportation of low-enriched uranium from Russia to the United States under the HEU-LEU agreement

Publish date: October 10, 2008

Written by: Charles Digges

The United States had repatriated more than 10 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) from Germany, completing a major part of a uranium repatriation programme coordinated by the National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA) that as brought all potentially dangerous US-origin material back from the country.

The NNSA, a semiautonomous body within the US Department of Energy (DOE), said that the material, transported by sea and rail, was the fourth shipment completed during the past year. Together, the four shipments have returned a total of almost 52 kg of HEU to the United States. The shipments also mean that all US-origin HEU has been returned from Argentina, Portugal and Romania.

The programme has now removed all US-origin HEU fuel from 16 countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy, Philippines, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and Thailand.

So far, the US-origin research reactor fuel return programme has seen 45 shipments, totalling 1190 kg of US-origin HEU, from 27 countries. The NNSA said this is sufficient for the production of over 45 nuclear weapons.

The HEU fuel assemblies are stored at the DOE’s interim management site, at Savannah River in South Carolina, until final disposition arrangements are made.

The Global Threat Reduction Programme
The US repatriation programme is part the Global Threat Reduction Initiative among the Moscow, Washington and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Much high profile activity within this programme has focused on repatriating Russian origin HEU, as Russia doled out more of it. But other troubling aspects haunt the Russian programme, such as lack of safe storage for the volatile material once it reaches Russia.

Since the Agreement’s signing in 2004, the US, IAEA and Russia have been working to repatriate Russian origin HEU form 20 research reactors from 17 countries to which Russia gave the material over the course of decades.  It is feared that many of these countries – including those that the US supplied – which have all cooperated with the plan so far, could be vulnerable to incursions from terrorist seeking the highly enriched bomb-grade material.  

US obligations

On the US side, NNSA officials coordinated the return of all “eligible” highly enriched uranium spent fuel from four nations -Argentina, Germany, Portugal and Romania – by the endof the fiscal year ending September 30th.

The most recent batch, 10.3 kilograms from Germany, was delivered September 23rd to the U.S. Savannah River Site in South Carolina, according to an NNSA spokeswoman.

The term “egligable” applies to types of fuel that the United States either has the technology or plans to develop which will dispose of the material safely.

“The complete removal of all eligible US-origin highly enriched uranium from Argentina, Portugal, Romania and Germany is another milestone in NNSA’s cooperative effort to reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation and demonstrates the U.S. government’s strong international commitment to nonproliferation,” said NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino in a prepared statement.

In the 1950’s, under the Atoms for Peace programme, the USA provided HEU reactor fuel to further other countries’ research into peaceful uses of nuclear energy, with the provision that the fuel would be returned to the US after use. Recovering the fuel has been a major non-proliferation effort of the NNSA.

Russia side worries
The Global Initiative programme has been underway for a comparatively short period of time, though has managed to repatriate HEU to Russia from several countries, most recently the Czech Republic, Vietnam and Poland. Others have included Bulgaria, Germany, Latvia and Libya. North Korea, Egypt, Belarus, Hungary, Kazakhstan, and China are also on the Initiative’s list of countries to return HEU to Russia.

The HEU returned to Russia is stored at the Dmitrovgrad All-Russia Institute for Atomic reactors, known as NIIAR in its Russian acronym. The facility has been the beneficiary of much US threat reduction spending over the past several years to beef-up its security.

Nonetheless, concerns about the safety of the material in Russia—where breaches are possible at even the most ostensibly well-secured sites are possible—remain high, something even Rosatom officials mentioned at the time of the agreement’s signing.

"Our protection system against terrorist attacks must be modernized. We know this. We pay great attention to it,” said Rosatom spokesman Nikolai Shingaryov in an interview with Bellona Web at the time.

Though costs paid for transport, storage and reprocessing by the members of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, many environmental organisations in Russia, including Bellona, have noted that reprocessing plans most often stop at storing waste, thus increasing the nuclear environmental load on Russia as a whole.

Eminent Russian environmentalist Aleksei Yablokov, president of the Moscow-based Centre for Ecological Policy of Russia, while backing the initiative, recognises it is more political than practical in nature.

"In principle, it is a very good idea to collect all used nuclear fuel which has been spread all over the world, but it is also an impossible task," said Yablokov in an interview with Bellona Web.

"A huge amount of it will remain in reactors in different parts of the world, nuclear power plants in different countries will continue to be a powerful source of weapons-grade nuclear material."

For this reason, said Yablokov, the Global Threat Reduction Initiative is more a political than a practical step.