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Project on Government Oversight

Expert Agrees: Over 300 Metric Tons of Highly Enriched Uranium is Surplus to U.S. Needs

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September 21, 2010

It is the one week anniversary of POGO's release of its latest investigation into the US Nuclear Weapons Complex: How the Country Can Profit and Become More Secure by Getting Rid of Its Surplus Weapons-Grade Uranium. Unfortunately, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) does not appear to be interested in those benefits, and told the Knoxville News' Frank Munger that our report was "riddled with inaccuracies and half-truths intended to mislead the public into believing that downblending highly enriched uranium is as simple as waving a magic wand and snapping your fingers.

NNSA did not provide specific details of what was inaccurate or half-true. In fact, in its statement to the Nuclear Weapons & Materials Monitor, NNSA confirmed one of the key findings in our report—that it is not using its full downblending capacity of "approximately 7-10 metric tons a year;" and that "the NNSA plans to downblend 3 metric tons a year through 2017 and approximately 2 metric tons a year thereafter," as illustrated here.

Given the numerous benefits of downblending highly enriched uranium (HEU)—which is no longer necessary for military needs—into the non-weapons usable form of low enriched uranium, why is NNSA setting such a low rate? This is especially frustrating when NNSA is asking taxpayers to finance a new multi-billion dollar Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee. UPF does not appear to help advance the downblending rate, despite NNSA telling us that one reason for the slowing of the downblending rate is that its current uranium facility, Building 9212,which UPF is intended to replace, is aged.

Hopefully Congress can provide some much-needed oversight on this issue, and help correct the lack of strategy for the huge stock of U.S. HEU. Ralph Vartabedian's article in the Los Angeles Times last week said that a spokesman for the Republican House Armed Services Committee "said they want to ask why existing highly enriched uranium surpluses were being 'downblended' at a slower than expected rate" during an upcoming visit to Y-12, which stores hundreds of tons of HEU.

Vartabedian's article also stated that Princeton University professor Frank von Hippel "makes a more conservative estimate of the surplus" than POGO's estimate (see chart below) that 324 metric tons of HEU can be declared surplus, with Hippel "putting it at about 60 metric tons."

However, in an email to Vartabedian and other journalists (with POGO cc'ed), von Hippel, who is also co-chair of the International Panel on Fissile Materials, has since clarified that his estimate is in the same ballpark as POGO's:

Dear Ralph,

Pete Stockton of POGO drew my attention to your quote that "von Hippel makes a more conservative estimate of the surplus, putting it at about 60 metric tons."

I must have said that in some context but it depends upon how you define "surplus" and I was obviously not clear.

Another journalist asked me this question last night by e-mail and this is a corrected summary of my response based on the draft chapter I sent you:

1) As of 2004, the U.S. inventory of HEU was about 690 tons.

2) Of that inventory, about 620 tons was in naval fuel, warheads, Pantex and the Y-12 site.  [The remaining 65 tons will require more time to discuss than I have at the moment.]

3) Of that inventory, about 100 tons was in naval fuel, which leaves 520 tons in warheads, Pantex and the Y-12 site.

4) If you assume 20 kg per warhead and 10,000 U.S. warheads, including active and awaiting dismantlement, about 200 tons would be in warheads of which 100 tons could be declared excess because about half of the warheads are in the dismantlement queue.

3) This leaves about 420 tons in Y12 and the dismantlement queue.

4) Of this, about 150 tons were slotted for blend-down, 130 tons were reserved for naval reactor fuel and 20 tons were reserved for research and space reactors.

5) Of the HEU slotted for blenddown in 2004 there are about 800 tons left to go.

6) With regard to HEU not declared excess, if you took 100 tons away from the navy stockpile (by committing to shift to LEU fuel in future naval reactors) and add the 80 tons already committed to blend-down, and then 100 tons from the 5,000 warheads that are in the dismantlement queue, I get about 280 tons of excess HEU.  If you downsized the U.S. stockpile to 1000 warheads, that would get you another 80 tons and bring you up to 360 tons. Without the Navy's HEU and the downsizing of the warhead stockpile to 1000 warheads, the number would still be 180 tons.

I am still working these numbers (I got 300 tons instead of the above 360 tons last night) and I will have go through this more carefully but I am confident that the amount that could be blended down is much more than 60 tons.

POGO chart showing estimate of what happened to the U.S. stockpile of highly enriched uranium (HEU):

This pie chart shows the allocation of where the HEU stockpile was sent to.
POGO downblending rate chart:
This line chart graph shows the steadily declining rate of downblending highly enriched uranium in the U.S. from 2004 through 2048

Downblending rate chart based on Appendices A and B of our latest report. Pie chart based on estimates in the report. The amounts of HEU are classified. These are POGO’s best estimates based on the limited public information. 

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO’s investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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