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POGO’s nuclear report: Let’s talk substance, not scare tactics September 24, 2010

Posted by Hans-Inge Langø in Analysis.
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The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has thrown a curveball into the debate on the reduction of nuclear stockpiles by proposing that the U.S. government sell surplus uranium for a profit. In a new report, POGO is proposing to use a process called downblending to turn U.S. high grade enriched uranium (HEU) into low grade enriched uranium (LEU) and then sell the material as fuel for nuclear power plants. According to POGO’s estimates, the government stands to make a $23 billion profit.

The proposal offers a unique synergy between two separate priorities of the federal government. The U.S. already has a backlog of material to dismantle, but the Department of Energy has not made downblending a priority. In addition, should the new START treaty be ratified, the U.S. will have international obligations to reduce its nuclear arsenal.

POGO’s proposal offers a way of turning the Obama administration’s long-term foreign policy objectives of nuclear disarmament and the practical matter of disposing surplus material into a profitable enterprise. Selling LEU as fuel works as an economic incentive for DoE, and increased supply could also stimulate the energy sector. More fuel could mean more nuclear power plants and energy, which in turn could help the economy – though this is not discusses in the report.

Nuclear terrorism

POGO’s report is weaker on its second argument, pertaining to national security. It cites the threat of nuclear terrorism as an important reason for going through with their proposal. The argument goes that, in the wrong hands, HEU material can be used to set off a nuclear explosion, and so the U.S. should reduce its stockpiles to minimize this risk.

Indeed, it is theoretically possible to detonate a crude nuclear bomb from this material. The Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, headed by Hans Blix, notes in a report that a technically proficient team of terrorists could accomplish this with a year or so of preparation time in advance (pages 13-15). Such a bomb would not yield a large explosion, though – no greater than 10 to 20 tons TNT equivalent.

In addition to not being a very effective bomb, the chances of such an attack remain quite low. A recent report by Peter Bergen and Bruce Hoffman, published by the Bipartisan Policy Center, argues that a mass-casualty terrorist attack involving a nuclear bomb is “unlikely to happen.” As noted in the report, previous attempts by al Qaeda to deploy crude versions of WMDs have “fizzled.”

Finding a market

POGO’s report would be better served with a more sober evaluation of the threat of nuclear terrorism. The opening description of a Hiroshima bomb “within minutes” elevates an otherwise somber proposal into something of a panic.

Nonetheless, POGO has come up with an interesting solution to a sluggish problem. It would cut down on the HEU stockpiles and generate some much-needed federal income.

The remaining question then is if and where the market for LEU material exists. The report does not specify whether this uranium should only be sold to domestic power plants or abroad as well. While there are several countries interested in acquiring nuclear power, the U.S. government would have to decide which ones are acceptable recipients of enriched uranium.

The government already has a program in place for selling LEU domestically. In 2009, a $209 million contract was awarded to WesDyne International, LLC and Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc. to downblend 12.1 metric tons of surplus HEU. The contractors will receive a fraction of the resulting LEU, while most will go to the Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility near Aiken, South Carolina. There, the LEU will be mixed with plutonium and turned into MOX fuel and sold on the private market in the U.S. However, the only buyer so far, Duke Energy, terminated its contract with the MOX facility in 2009. For the U.S. government, it has proven difficult to find power plants willing to convert its facilities to accommodate MOX fuel – a technology so far only used outside of the U.S. – but recent developments offer a ray of hope.

(Photo Credit: Uranium, Wikimedia Commons)

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