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Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Now is the Time to Downblend Highly Enriched Uranium

The Project On Government Oversight has long been calling on the Department of Energy to reduce the country’s stockpile of highly enriched uranium (HEU). By reducing the amount of this dangerous material, the Department can begin consolidating the nuclear weapons complex, increasing security and reducing costs.

The threat of HEU getting in the hands of terrorists is frightening, especially considering that a nuclear detonation could be achieved simply by dropping one piece of HEU on another, or slamming two pieces of HEU together with conventional explosives. Such an improvised nuclear detonation (IND) could be completed in 20 minutes and would yield a blast comparable to that of the Hiroshima bomb.

The key to eliminating this dangerous material is a method called downblending, a process involving diluting HEU with low enriched uranium (LEU) and other materials. The resulting material is unusable in nuclear weapons but can still be used in commercial nuclear reactors.

One of the biggest road blocks to downblending all the excess HEU in the U.S. stockpile has been the U.S. Navy, which uses HEU to fuel the propulsion systems in its submarines and aircraft carriers. But now both the Energy Department and the Federation of American Scientists have released studies finding that the Navy could use LEU instead of HEU.

Downblending HEU to LEU will reduce expenses associated with storing, managing, and securing DOE’s excess uranium inventory, as LEU can be stored in relatively lower-cost monitored storage facilities. Downblending could even generate revenue for the U.S. Treasury through the sale of the resultant LEU to nuclear power plants.

The Energy Department used to downblend at a rate of 20 metric tons per year, but is now toiling along at a mere 2-3 metric tons per year (see p. 539). But the rates of downblending are tied to the rates of nuclear weapons dismantlement. Nuclear warheads are dismantled at the Pantex Plant in Texas and the uranium portion of the bomb, known as secondaries, are sent across the country to the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of uranium secondaries waiting to be dismantled at Y-12, and only then can the HEU inside be downblended.

Unfortunately, the Y-12 complex security doesn’t have the best track record. Approximately 400 metric tons of HEU is stored in one building at Y-12. In 2012 an 82-year-old nun and two other protestors broke into the complex and protested outside the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility for over 20 minutes before security found them. If the intruders had been intent on sabotage, this security failure would have had disastrous consequences.

And it’s not just Y-12 that has a history of troubling security lapses. The Department of Energy’s Office of Secure Transportation, which is responsible for transporting nuclear weapons and material across the country, has had more than its fair share of embarrassing incidents. In 1998 the transportation security forces failed a force-on-force test, where mock adversaries simulate an attack, and in another force-on-force test a year later the transportation division was found to have cheated on the test in which it defeated the mock-terrorists.

After those failures, the Transportation Security Division briefly cleaned up its act enough to be considered one of the best-trained and most well-organized security forces in the nuclear complex. However, recent incidents indicate that the division may be falling back into bad habits. In 2010, the Department of Energy Inspector General (IG) found that some transportation agents were drinking while on duty. In 2012, the IG found that the entire fleet of armored trucks was beyond its operation life and the officers were working so much overtime that it raised safety and security concerns. Now Greenwire has obtained an IG report previously classified “OFFICIAL USE ONLY” that details “unsuitable” behavior by some of the transportation agents, exposing the material to unnecessary risk.

The extreme vulnerability of this material, especially during transportation over public highways, is not a matter to be taken lightly. These security concerns, along with the U.S. commitment not to build any new nuclear weapons, makes now an excellent time to consolidate the entire nuclear weapons complex. There are several opportunities for consolidation that would make the country far safer and more secure, beginning with the Y-12 complex.

POGO recommends that the Energy Department conduct a review of the nuclear weapons complex, and Y-12 specifically, similar to the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC). The BRAC reviews conducted by the Defense Department have successfully eliminated redundancies and closed unnecessary military bases and laboratories.

For instance, instead of spending billions of dollars to upgrade the infrastructure at Y-12, the Energy Department should consider moving some of those missions to the Pantex Plant in Texas. In 2013, POGO found that many of the proposed missions for the new Uranium Processing Facility at Y-12 could easily be conducted at the Pantex Plant in Texas. Furthermore, Department of Energy sources have told POGO that funding will be available for building a new secure, storage facility at Pantex. The design will reportedly be similar to the Kirtland Underground Munitions Storage Complex (KUMSC), a state-of-the-art underground nuclear weapons storage facility in New Mexico.

Moving HEU operations to Pantex will eliminate the need to transport this dangerous material across the country and will improve the overall security of the nuclear weapons complex. It’s long past time to consolidate the complex and it should begin with downblending HEU.