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Championing Responsible National Security Policy

No More Excuses for Failing to Downblend

Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) is an enormously dangerous nuclear material used in nuclear weapons. With as little as 20 pounds of HEU, a terrorist could create an improvised nuclear device within minutes. The Department of Energy (DOE) isn’t talking much about HEU and the stockpile that once reached 994 Metric Tons (MT), but it should be. Despite declaring 375 MT excess to military needs in the last 20 years, DOE is failing to speed up nuclear weapons dismantlement and to downblend HEU at a pace that reduces the stockpile, lessens security risks, cuts spending, and generates millions (and possibly billions depending on the market) of dollars in revenue for the Treasury.

The threat of HEU getting in the hands of terrorists is frightening. Terrorists could create a nuclear detonation simply by either dropping one piece of HEU on another, or slamming two pieces of HEU together with conventional explosives. The yield in either case would be approximately that of the Hiroshima bomb. This threat is the main motivation for downblending the expensive-to-secure HEU into low enriched uranium (LEU), which is unusable in weapons but is usable as fuel for commercial nuclear reactors and naval nuclear reactors. Downblending HEU would also reduce the related security risks, prevent the need for expensive storage facilities, and generate revenue for the U.S. Treasury through the sale of the resultant LEU to nuclear power plants.

Recently, the Department of Energy announced it was going to award a sole source contract to Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) to downblend approximately 20 MT of HEU for reactor fuel. But that is just a tiny portion of the remaining stockpile—there are currently about 600 MT of HEU and few clear dismantlement goals.

DOE seems to be claiming it doesn’t have the capacity to downblend more. According to DOE and its justification for its sole source contract, Nuclear Fuel Services (owned by B&W) in Erwin, Tennessee, is the “only commercial firm” licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to do this process. The agency’s rationale for this claim is unclear, however, because there are a number of facilities where downblending has been completed. The Babcock & Wilcox Nuclear Operations Group, Inc., facility in Lynchburg, Virginia; Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Complex in Tennessee; and Savannah River in South Carolina can also downblend.

Downblending HEU to LEU also will reduce expenses associated with storing, managing, and securing DOE’s excess uranium inventory. No need for billion–dollar buildings or a military-type security force; LEU can easily be stored in monitored storage facilities.

Despite signing disarmament treaties and the HEU Purchase Agreement (the United States agreed to buy Russian LEU for use in our commercial reactors) the United States is dragging its feet while the Russians are eliminating of 30 MT of HEU annually. The downblending was done as part of the Megatons to Megawatts Program that concluded in 2013.

Rather than downblending at a rate of 20 MT per year as DOE had done in the past, it is now plodding along at 2 MT to 3 MT per year (see p. 539). At that rate, it will take the agency until FY 2030 to downblend the HEU that has been declared excess, and another 100 years or more to downblend half of the remaining stockpile once it is declared excess. That schedule isn’t being accelerated because the government is working at a snail’s pace to dismantle thermonuclear weapon canned sub-assemblies.

POGO will continue urging the government to adopt more aggressive dismantlement and downblending operations. It is imperative that DOE move at a quicker pace, and the security risks and lost revenues seem to outweigh any of the drummed up claims that DOE is currently making.