The nuclear clean-out

The last few months have been busy ones for the nuclear express: trucks, trains and ships have been hauling giant protective casks containing highly-enriched uranium, plutonium, and spent nuclear fuel from vulnerable locations to safe harbors.

These delicate operations in the former Soviet bloc point to progress in President Obama’s promise to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials in four years. He may not make the goal, but step-by-step, more and more weapons-useable material is being cleaned out and locked up.

In November, the United States and Kazakhstan completed the transfer to a new storage site of some 300 metric tons of spent fuel, containing more than 10 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium, enough to make 775 nuclear weapons. The material was moved from the BN-350 fast reactor on the Caspian Sea, originally built to breed plutonium for the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons program, to a new long-term storage site about 1,500 miles away in Kazakhstan. According to the National Nuclear Security Administration, which handled the move with Kazakhstan, the transfer required the construction of new roads and rails, five specially-designed cask rail cars, two guard cars, a fleet of security cars, and 61 protective fuel casks weighing 100 tons each. Mike Shuster of NPR did a good story on the operation.

In December, the NNSA announced the removal of 28 pounds of highly-enriched uranium from the Vinca Institute of Nuclear Sciences in Serbia. The operation, coordinated by the International Atomic Energy Agency, also took out about 2.5 metric tons of low-enriched uranium spent fuel. The materials went by road and rail to a Slovenian seaport, then loaded on a vessel and shipped to Russia. Gregg Webb of the IAEA has an account here.

Also in December, the government of Belarus announced that it would give up its stock of highly-enriched uranium, which the United States has been seeking to remove for years. The Washington Post reported that two classified operations were carried out in the past two months to remove 187 pounds of weapons-grade uranium from a research facility, setting the stage for the agreement to remove the rest of the material, estimated to be about 500 pounds.

On Dec. 3, the IAEA’s 35-nation board approved plans for a new nuclear fuel repository. The idea is to encourage nations which want low-enriched fuel for civilian reactors to acquire it from the international fuel bank rather than build a domestic capability which can raise concerns about proliferation and making nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Threat Initiative in Washington and investor Warren Buffett together provided $50 million seed money for the new facility. Meanwhile, an earlier effort to create a low-enriched uranium reserve, in Russia, opened its doors in December, too.

Still, there are problems ahead. Over the last two years, the Government Accountability Office has been working on a classified study of the effort to secure vulnerable nuclear materials. An unclassified version (report GAO-11-227) was made public in recent weeks. The GAO says that while the National Security Council has developed a classified seven-page government-wide strategy for meeting Obama's goal of securing all vulnerable materials in four years, the scope of all these nuclear materials creates some uncertainty about whether Obama's ambitious goal can be met. "Several hundred" sites around the world have "significant" amounts of nuclear material, and "a large number of sites were determined to be most vulnerable." The GAO quotes NSC officials as saying "there is a large universe of nuclear material sites around the world and there are many unknowns and uncertainties…"

Not surprisingly, the NSC officials said they do not consider Obama's promise to be "a hard and fast deadline."

Three other interesting findings in the report:

1.) At 37 Russian nuclear materials sites, the Materials Protection, Control and Accounting program has upgraded security at 195 out of a total 214 buildings. That’s real progress.

2.) But the scattered locations are still a problem. The Materials Consolidation and Conversion program was supposed to deal with this, reducing the number of buildings into fewer, more secure locations. When created in 1999, the program envisioned helping Russia remove materials from 50 buildings in five locations by this year; to date, it has achieved removal of all highly-enriched uranium from only 25 buildings at one site. Efforts to reach a necessary agreement with Russia on consolidation have stalled.

3.) Russia’s political leadership continues to question whether it needs further assistance. The GAO said that Russian officials told them that nuclear materials in the country are “fully secure” and “they saw little value to continuing to work with the United States” on the issue. We’ve seen this reluctance elsewhere, too, in Russia’s decision to pull out of hosting the International Science and Technology Center, founded to help counter the spread of know-how by former Soviet weapons scientists.

Update, Dec. 31: The NNSA has announced the removal of 111 pounds of highly-enriched uranium from Ukraine. Some of this was the uranium found in 1995 in Kharkiv, which I described in The Dead Hand. 

Greg Webb/IAEA