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Downblending Programs' Future in Doubt
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Jeremy Wolland

The Department of Energy and two private corporations have successfully completed a program to eliminate 50 metric tons of U.S. material potentially suitable for nuclear weapons, converting it into fuel for civilian nuclear power reactors. Meanwhile, Moscow indicated in July that a similar but much larger program for former Soviet nuclear material will not be extended beyond 2013.

National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) head Linton Brooks July 13 announced the completion of the U.S. effort, known as the Highly Enriched Uranium Downblend Program. NNSA, which oversees the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, worked with the United States Enrichment Corp. (USEC) and BWX Technologies to complete the eight-year program to convert highly enriched uranium (HEU) into low-enriched uranium (LEU). The process, which decreases the proportion of the uranium-235 isotope, effectively renders the material unusable for making bombs but suited for fueling nuclear power reactors.

NNSA reported that the program began with 50 metric tons of HEU from dismantled nuclear warheads and existing HEU stockpiles, enough to produce approximately 800 nuclear warheads. An NNSA official told Arms Control Today July 28 that some of material was of a lesser grade than that optimally suited for use in nuclear weapons.

From the original 50 metric tons of HEU, the downblending program produced 660 metrics tons of LEU, the amount needed to run a typical commercial nuclear reactor for 34 years. USEC, a former government entity and now one of the largest global vendors of nuclear reactor fuel, sells this material directly to nuclear power companies.

USEC also is involved in the much more extensive U.S.-Russian program, which thus far has converted 275 metric tons of weapons-grade uranium into LEU fuel, accounting for roughly half of the LEU used in nuclear power reactors in the United States. Under that 20-year “megaton to megawatts” effort begun in 1993, the United States and Russia plan to downblend 500 metric tons of Soviet-era weapons-grade uranium by 2013.

Some U.S. officials and experts hoped that the program would continue beyond that date. However, Interfax reported July 15 that Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency chief Sergei Kiriyenko had indicated that Russia will not continue the program after 2013.

Russia views USEC as an unnecessary middleman and hopes to sell nuclear fuel directly to U.S. nuclear power plants. Uranium prices have been rising in recent years as prospects for the nuclear power industry appear to have brightened, both in the United States and worldwide.

Executives at U.S. nuclear power companies support the Russian effort, but some politicians and potential U.S. competitors fear that Russian would “dump” cheap LEU on a growing U.S. market. In a letter submitted to President George W. Bush shortly before a July Group of Eight summit, New Mexico Senators Pete Domenici (R) and Jeff Bingaman (D), along with Ohio Senators Mike DeWine (R) and George Voinovich (R) claim that the Russian plan would “result in market destabilization potentially jeopardizing resurgence of the nuclear-related industry.” The letter cites proposals by USEC and an energy consortium led by the European enrichment consortium Urenco to build two uranium-enrichment facilities in New Mexico and Ohio, an investment of more than $3 billion.

Estimates by the independent Institute for Science and International Security place U.S. HEU holdings at more than 700 metric tons, while Russia has approximately 1,100 metric tons. In total, these materials could create as many as 30,000 nuclear warheads. Brooks noted that Russia and the United States “both recognize that we have too much energy value tied up in weapons and weapons material.”

In the past year, NNSA has announced two initiatives aimed at the reducing the amount of HEU the United States reserves for military purposes. The first program, announced in September 2005 by Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, will blend down 17 tons of HEU as part of a U.S. contribution to a proposed global reserve of nuclear reactor fuel. (See ACT, November 2005.) The second downblending program is scheduled to remove 200 metric tons of material stockpiled for nuclear weapons. (See ACT, December 2005.)


Posted: September 1, 2006