Today, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is releasing U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: How the Country Can Profit and Become More Secure by Getting Rid of Its Surplus Weapons-Grade Uranium, an investigative report which has found that the Obama Administration’s efforts of securing and disposing of bomb-grade material around the world is not being realized here in the U.S.
A huge opportunity to save the U.S. taxpayers money, generate up to $23 billion in revenue for the Treasury, and improve security is right under the government’s nose. The U.S. has nearly 400 metric tons (MT) of highly enriched uranium (HEU), a fissile material used in nuclear weapons, that is not necessary for U.S. defense needs, the vast majority of which has not been declared surplus so that it can be properly eliminated. This is the equivalent of more than 16,000 nuclear warheads.
“With proper leadership, this would be a win-win scenario: Jobs would be created during the economic downturn; billions in revenue could be generated for the U.S. Treasury while security costs could be radically reduced; and Americans would be less vulnerable to devastating terrorist attacks,” said POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian. “It is rare to see a policy reform that has so many up-sides. Congress, the White House, and the Department of Energy need to seize this opportunity.”
Although not necessary for defense purposes, this vast store of HEU could be used for nefarious purposes by terrorists. With just enough to fill a shoebox, terrorists could create what is known as an improvised nuclear device that has the potential for a blast on par with the nuclear weapon that devastated Hiroshima, Japan. They could do this within minutes if they gained access to the material—a distinct possibility given the chronic and well-documented weaknesses in securing nuclear materials at numerous U.S. sites.
Despite this danger, one of the most practical ways of reducing the risk has fallen by the wayside. The pace of converting surplus, expensive-to-secure HEU into low enriched uranium (LEU), which is unusable in weapons, has slowed to a snail’s pace.
As recently as 2004, this process—known as downblending—was occurring at a rate close to ten times that of the downblending rate planned for the next four decades. The reason for the slow-down appears to be that the Department of Energy (DOE) has not made downblending a priority.
The U.S. government has the capacity to ramp up downblending of surplus HEU to previous levels, and even exceed them. Also, far more HEU can be declared surplus than has been.