Drawing down the nuclear stock


Conflicts of interest dividing Moscow and Washington have overshadowed a more positive development — real progress in nuclear arms cuts between the two powers that together hold 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.

Since ’87, the United States and former Soviet countries, chiefly Russia, have signed a series of disarmament treaties, reducing nuclear arsenals by about 80 percent. The Russian and U.S. presidents recently agreed to reduce them further, by around a third. The new bilateral pact would replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires Dec. 5. As a result, the current ceiling on warheads would be lowered from 2,200 each to between 1,500 and 1,675, and the number of long-range missiles from 1,600 each to between 500 and 1,100.

The explosive power of these arsenals is still enough to destroy civilized life many times over. The cuts are intended to stabilize strategic offensive forces at progressively lower levels, dissuade other countries with nuclear weapons from expanding their warhead stocks and delivery systems, and discourage the spread of nuclear weapons beyond the nine nations known to have them today.

Perhaps as important as the arms cuts are steps to get rid of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. This is a little known story of considerable success.

On July 20, USEC Inc., a privatized U.S. government agency known formerly as the U.S. Enrichment Corp., announced new pricing arrangements for low-enriched uranium (LEU) it has been buying from Russia. USEC is a leading supplier of LEU for nuclear power plants that generate some 15 percent of the world’s electricity. It supplies more than half the U.S. market and over a quarter of the global market. A lot of its LEU has been coming from dismantled Russian nuclear warheads.

Under a 1993 agreement signed by the Russian and U.S. governments, known as the Megatons to Megawatts program, Russia has been converting 500 metric tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU) from its warheads and military stockpiles. By the end of June, the Russian government agency, Technabexport (Tenex), had recycled 367 tons of this weapons-grade HEU by blending it down into about 10,620 tons of LEU for USEC. It has been paid over $5 billion for this work.

The recycling of HEU into civilian nuclear reactor fuel, mainly for generating electricity, is the equivalent of eliminating nearly 14,690 nuclear warheads. By the time the 20-year contract ends in 2013, around 20,000 bombs-worth of HEU will have been scrapped.

In addition, a group of Western nuclear energy companies, headed by Cameco of Canada, is buying 3,175 tons of LEU annually from Tenex that comes from dismantled Russian nuclear weapons. The uranium in this 14-year contract to 2013 is sold for use as fuel in nuclear power plants.

Surplus military plutonium, the other main ingredient for nuclear weapons, is also being turned into civilian nuclear reactor fuel by Russia and the U.S. However, there is more weapons-grade uranium in military stockpiles, around 2,000 tons, than weapons-grade plutonium, estimated at some 260 tons.

Stockpiles of weapons-grade fissile material need to be further reduced, and controls tightened, to prevent the spread of technology for uranium enrichment and plutonium production. Moves to limit nuclear bomb-making could be capped by a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty. A verifiable international agreement to end production of HEU and plutonium for weapons would a centerpiece for deeper and wider reductions in nuclear arms.

Meanwhile, securing all kinds of nuclear material and knowhow has become a top U.S. priority. Nuclear material refers to actual weapons, HEU or plutonium, related items and expertise from an increasingly wide range of countries that could be of interest to states or terrorists with nuclear ambitions.

In the five years to 2007, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, identified more than 1,300 cases of unauthorized use or possession, loss or theft of nuclear materials. Eighteen of those incidents involved HEU or plutonium.

U.S. President Barack Obama recently announced that he would invite leaders from up to 30 countries to a summit in March to intensify cooperation in guarding against nuclear terrorism, and in tracking and securing materials that could be used for nuclear weapons, crude nuclear explosive devices, or “dirty” bombs that use conventional explosives to scatter deadly radioactive substances.

High on the summit agenda will be moves to hasten conversion of all nuclear research reactors to operate on LEU fuel instead of highly enriched material that could be used for bombs. Unlike power reactors that generate electricity, research reactors are smaller. They produce nuclear material distributed worldwide for use in medical treatment, food irradiation and civilian industry. Many research reactors were designed to run on highly enriched uranium.

HEU means a concentration of at least 20 percent of the fissile isotope uranium-235. If enriched to around 90 percent, it could be used in a nuclear bomb. LEU reactor fuel for power generation is only 5 percent U-235, and some types of reactors can operate at natural enrichment levels of about 0.7 percent.

The U.S. has recalled 225 kg of HEU from 17 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, Europe and South America, including Australia, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand. Russia has taken back approximately 862 kg of Russian-origin HEU from 11 countries in Asia, Africa and Europe that operate research reactors, including Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Since the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration launched its Global Threat Reduction Initiative nine years ago, 18 research reactors in different parts of the world have been converted to use LEU fuel instead of HEU. As a result of this activity, the world is a somewhat safer place.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.