On July 27, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced that it had successfully transferred three kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) to Russia from Libya.
At first glance, this announcement might seem odd. Three kilograms doesn't sound like much material and besides, why are we transferring nuclear materials to Russia?
The answer is that this transfer took place as part of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), a collaborative program instituted by the U.S. Department of Energy to repatriate HEU stocks distributed by the nuclear superpowers to their Cold War allies, to keep the HEU out of the hands of terrorists. And while three kilograms is not a huge amount, it is about one fifth of whats needed to build a simple nuclear bomb.
An unannounced transfer from Libya in 2004 returned 17 kg of HEU to Russia. In late 2005, Libya was estimated to have 23 kg of fresh (unused in reactors) HEU left, so today they probably have 20 kg remaining (the Department of Energy has refused to confirm how much fuel remains in the country). GTRIs initial goal, stated in 2004, was to repatriate all fresh fuel of Russian origin by the end of 2005; in Libyas case, at least, the program has fallen woefully behind.
This snail's pace has been caused in part by "inadequate staffing and financing, and a disproportionate emphasis on conversionrather than shutdownof older, unnecessary facilities." Bureaucratic problems and international suspicion probably play a role as well.
GTRI's mission is to "identify, secure, remove and/or facilitate the disposition of high-risk, vulnerable nuclear and radiological materials and equipment around the world that pose a threat to the United States and to the international community." This specifically includes conversion of reactors to low enriched uranium fuel and securing high-risk nuclear materials. While U.S. funding has actually exceeded its initial commitment of $450 million, it still doesnt seem to be enough. The program also disproportionately focuses on Russian-made fuel, even while two-thirds of U.S.- made fuel abroad "is not yet covered" (though, to be fair, the U.S. asserts that these stockpiles are in low-risk countries like France and Germany). Worse, around half of the worlds HEU-fueled reactors have not been targeted for conversion efforts yet and some say the timetable is too long.
GTRI has succeeded in transferring around 189 kg of HEU back to Russia (though I hesitate to say it is entirely secure there) out of 1,781 kg that have been targeted; it has also converted 40 reactorsout of 106 currently targetedto LEU fuel. Funding for the program is planned to continue through fiscal year 2011.
Russia plans to blend the HEU down to LEU for use as reactor fuel. Let's just hope this happens and that, either way, it doesn't end up floating on a barge in the North Sea.
-- Eric Hundman