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U.S. Should Commit to Several Actions that Would Advance Nuclear Material Security Here at Home

April 12, 2010 

 

During the Nuclear Security Summit now being hosted in Washington D.C. by President Obama, the U.S. should commit to several actions that would advance nuclear material security here at home.
 
1.  Downblend U.S. HEU: The U.S. can accelerate the rate it is downblending the highly enriched uranium (HEU) that is no longer needed for military needs. Downblending involves transforming HEU into low enriched uranium (LEU), which is not a terrorist target but is useable as fuel for nuclear power plants. The U.S. has scheduled for downblending approximately 117 metric tons (MT) of HEU, but not to be completed until 2050. The U.S. has the capacity to increase this remarkably sluggish pace of downblending only 2 MT a year up to 30 MT per year, thus truly securing the HEU the U.S. is storing within the next four years.   
 
The U.S. can also declare excess to military needs an additional 300 MT of HEU and put it on the pathway to be downblended. The U.S. currently has an estimated stockpile of over 600 MT—24,000 warheads or that's over 1.3 million pounds—of HEU. 
 
The U.S. should cancel the construction of the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at Y-12 National Security Complex, which creates a long-term mission for large stocks of HEU to be available for the production of up to 200 new secondaries per year. The highly-respected JASON group's recent study found that the nation's nuclear warheads, including the HEU secondaries, can continue to be extended safely and certifiably for decades. Without the UPF, the U.S. still has the capacity to manufacture new secondaries. The $3.5 billion estimated cost of UPF can be reallocated towards the downblending budget.
 
Downblending is a win-win situation. Not only would it reduce security risks and costs, as well as advance U.S. global non-proliferation and security goals, by removing a prime terrorist target from our stocks, but it would also generate more than $20 billion to the U.S. Treasury from the sale of LEU as fuel for nuclear power reactors, plus the savings from reduced storage and security costs.
 
2.   Reduce the backlog of reserve weapons in dismantlement queue: There is a 39 percent reduction in the FY 2011 budget for the dismantlement of retired weapons. This decrease sends the wrong disarmament signal to the global community, as the nuclear components of dismantled weapons can be transformed into safe forms that are unusable for weapons or terrorists.
 
This funding decrease exacerbates the growing backlog of thousands of nuclear warheads in the dismantlement queue and raises concerns about security. A number of the more secure military storage bunkers are filling fast. For example, the Air Force's most secure facility KUMSC (Kirtland Underground Munitions Storage Complex) is virtually filled. With additional substantial reductions of deployed warheads as a result of the new START treaty and the Nuclear Posture Review it is not clear that there are adequate secure storage facilities for these additional excess warheads.
 
3.   Stop the construction of a new facility for producing Cold War-era numbers of plutonium pits:  There is unused capacity to produce any necessary replacement pits in PF-4 at Los Alamos. Thus, there is no need for a new $4.5 billion CMRR-NF building to expand capacity to produce 80 pits annually at Los Alamos.
 
4.   Convert research reactors to LEU reactors: One way to speed up this process is for the government to allocate resources for conversion of HEU reactors to LEU. While university research reactors may not individually contain enough HEU to make a bomb, a combination of two university reactors could. HEU is, without question, a terrorist's weapon of choice.
 
5.      Remove nuclear bombs from Europe: Keeping U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe is unpopular in those countries, and some senior officials in those countries say they want the weapons removed. It is also wasteful spending, as most of these nations do not even have the aircraft to deliver the nuclear bombs, thus rendering the continuing storage and maintenance of the warheads as unnecessarily expensive and risky.
 
For more information on POGO's nuclear weapons investigations, click here.


Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO's investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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