10/09/2007 - 22:00

Global Fissile Material Report 2007: Summary findings

Almost two decades since the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia still retain stockpiles of about 10,000 nuclear weapons each and have committed only to reduce to about half that number by the end of 2012, when the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty comes into force.

There are now seven other nuclear weapon states, including North Korea, which carried out its first nuclear test on October 9, 2006. Their arsenals range from a few simple warheads to several hundred high-yield thermonuclear weapons.

There are growing concerns about a loss of momentum in the nuclear disarmament process, additional states acquiring nuclear weapons, and the possibility of nuclear terrorism.

Fissile materials, ordinarily plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU), are the essential ingredients in all nuclear weapons. Securing, consolidating, and eliminating fissile material stocks worldwide are the common imperatives in the overlapping efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons in the countries where they exist, halt their spread to still more countries, and prevent terrorists from obtaining them.

This is the second report by the International Panel on Fissile Materials on the global situation with regard to efforts to secure and eliminate fissile materials. Below we summarize briefly some of our key findings and conclusions.

Highly enriched uranium. As of early 2007, the global stockpiles of HEU totaled between 1,400 and 2,000 metric tons. (NOTE: In this report, the term "tons" denotes metric tons.) The uncertainty reflects mostly the fact that Russia has not revealed how much HEU it has made.

During 2006, Russia downblended 30 metric tons of weapon-grade uranium to low-enriched uranium (LEU) and shipped it to the United States. This met about half the fuel requirement of U.S. nuclear power plants. Thus far, almost 300 tons of Russian weapon-grade uranium have been disposed of in this way. This program is expected to continue until 2013, by which time 500 tons of HEU, enough for 20,000 weapons, will have been downblended.

In the United States, a total of 87 tons of excess HEU had been downblended as of mid-2007. None of this HEU was weapon-grade. The United States plans to downblend or otherwise dispose of 147 additional tons of HEU, some from weapons, over the next few decades.

Russia and the United States retain for weapons a combined total of 600 to 1,200 tons of HEU--sufficient for 25,000 to 50,000 nuclear warheads.

The United States has set aside almost all of its excess weapon-grade uranium for use as naval-reactor fuel--enough for 5,000 more nuclear warheads. Russia and Britain also have large reserves of HEU for naval fuel. These naval HEU stockpiles, and their vulnerable processing and transport links, would be eliminated if the three countries followed France's example and moved to naval reactors fueled with LEU.

HEU also has been used as a fuel for research reactors worldwide since the 1960s. The United States is leading a global effort to clean out often insecure civilian HEU. Thus far, HEU in both fresh and spent fuel has been completely removed from 16 countries. Twenty-eight, however, still have enough civilian HEU to make at least one nuclear weapon. Russia, which has half of the world's 140 HEU-fueled research reactors, has no policy with regard to HEU cleanout at home.

Separated plutonium. The current global stockpile of separated plutonium is about 500 tons.

During 2006, Russia and the United States made no progress toward implementing their agreement to each dispose of a minimum of 34 tons of excess weapon-grade plutonium. These programs, launched in 2000, have experienced slipping schedules and rising cost estimates. Russia's intention to use its excess plutonium to fuel a breeder reactor indicates that it expects eventually to separate the plutonium again.

India, Pakistan, and probably, Israel continue to produce more plutonium for weapons. Both India and Pakistan are expanding their production capabilities but, on July 14, 2007, North Korea shut down its plutonium production reactor--hopefully permanently.

As of 2007, the global stock of civilian plutonium is approximately 250 metric tons--our central estimate of the amount of plutonium that was made for weapons in the Cold War. Stocks of separated plutonium continue to build up at reprocessing plants in India, Japan, Russia, and Britain. About 8 kilograms of this "reactor-grade" plutonium is sufficient to make a simple nuclear weapon.

Britain has decided to abandon spent-fuel reprocessing. Like France and Russia, it has lost its foreign reprocessing customers. It now is faced with the challenge of disposing of one-third of the world's separated civilian plutonium and cleaning up the legacy of radioactive contamination from reprocessing, at a cost currently estimated at $75 billion.

Japan has shifted from reprocessing abroad to reprocessing at home. In 2006, it began to operate a new $20 billion domestic spent-fuel reprocessing plant. Operating at design capacity, this plant will separate more than 20 kilograms of plutonium per day. Japan has not yet been able to begin recycling any of its 40 tons of already separated plutonium into light water power reactor fuel.

In the United States, the Bush administration has proposed to reverse a three-decade-old moratorium on domestic reprocessing. This so-called Global Nuclear Energy Partnership initiative is encountering strong opposition in Congress, however, and its future is uncertain.

Consolidation of fissile materials in the U.S. nuclear complex. Following 9/11, the Energy Department raised the security requirements for the hundreds of tons of fissile materials spread over its huge nuclear complex. In fiscal year 2006, it spent more than $1 billion on this effort.

To further strengthen security and reduce costs, Energy is beginning to consolidate its fissile materials into a smaller number of sites and buildings. When this effort is complete, four of Energy's 10 main sites will no longer have weapon quantities of fissile materials. At three others, fissile materials will be consolidated into one or two high-security buildings. Progress is being slowed in some cases by opposition at sites that stand to lose fissile materials and fear for their current missions and budgets.

Consolidation has not yet touched the naval-reactor fuel cycle. Naval-reactor fuel is fabricated in the United States at two private lower-security facilities using HEU shipped from Energy's Y-12 site in Tennessee. All U.S. HEU processing and storage could be consolidated at the Y-12 site, where work is underway on new high-security HEU storage and processing buildings.

Progress toward nuclear disarmament. Nothing would reduce the nuclear threat to civilization and increase the credibility of the nonproliferation regime more than the United States and Russia cutting their weapons and associated fissile-materials stockpiles much more deeply.

There are well-developed proposals for how the United States and Russia could quickly reduce the number of warheads in their nuclear stockpiles to 1,000 each. Deeper cuts to about 200 weapons each could be made if the other nuclear weapons states joined the arms limitation process. Such deep cuts would make it possible to eliminate most of the global stockpile of weapons HEU and plutonium.

International monitoring in the nuclear weapon states. In the 1990s, the United States, Russia, France, and Britain officially ended their production of plutonium and HEU for weapons, and China communicated unofficially that it had joined the moratorium. All enrichment and reprocessing activities in these countries therefore could be subject to international monitoring, as in the non-weapon states.

All five of these Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) nuclear weapon states have made "voluntary offers" of nuclear facilities for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguarding. Britain and the United States have offered all of their civilian nuclear facilities. France, Russia, and China have made more limited offers. Budget constraints have prevented the IAEA from putting more than a few of these nuclear facilities under safeguards.

In France and Britain, all civilian nuclear facilities, including enrichment and reprocessing plants, are subject to Euratom safeguards. This has established an invaluable precedent for the extension of international safeguards into the civilian sectors of the other weapon states.

If the IAEA mandate were extended to include safeguarding enrichment plants, reprocessing plants, and all civilian fissile materials in the nuclear weapon states, much of the infrastructure for a verified ban on the production of fissile materials for weapons (a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty) would have been established.

The future of nuclear power. Over the past two decades, there has been little growth in installed nuclear energy capacity in most of the world, with the exception of some limited construction in Asia. Nevertheless, given the cost increases in oil and natural gas, and rising concerns about climate change, many in the nuclear industry hope for a three- to four-fold increase in global nuclear capacity by 2050. Nuclear power continues to have very high capital costs, however, and there is a lack of public support for a major expansion.

Whatever the future of nuclear power, it is important to limit the spread of national gas-centrifuge uranium enrichment plants, because they can easily be converted to the production of HEU for weapons. One alternative is to have uranium enrichment take place only in facilities that are multinationally owned and operated.

There is no need for spent-fuel reprocessing plants, national or multinational. Reprocessing and storage or recycling of the recovered plutonium persist only where governments do not allow much less costly and more secure dry-cask storage of spent fuel.

Russia's role in the international fuel cycle. Russia is seeking to consolidate its civilian nuclear activities into a single state-owned company that can compete in the global nuclear market as a supplier of nuclear fuel cycle services and reactors.

Russia owns about half of the world's uranium enrichment capacity. It is becoming a major international supplier of uranium-enrichment services and recently proposed to build a multinational enrichment plant at Angarsk that will be open to IAEA safeguards. Russia also fabricates fuel for all Soviet and Russian designed nuclear power reactors, as well as for some Western reactors, and is constructing power reactors in the developing world.

Russia's commercial spent fuel reprocessing industry, like those of France and Britain, is losing its foreign customers. Because of domestic opposition to taking other countries' radioactive waste, Russia now requires that radioactive waste from foreign spent fuel be returned to the countries of origin. As a result, those countries are switching to domestic dry-cask storage of their spent fuel.

Environmental monitoring to detect clandestine fissile material production. As part of the Additional Protocol to their NPT safeguards agreement, non-weapon states agree to allow the IAEA to conduct area-wide environmental monitoring to detect clandestine reprocessing or uranium enrichment. Thus far, however, the IAEA Board has not authorized such monitoring.

Field tests have shown that krypton-85, a gaseous fission product that is released when spent fuel is dissolved, can be detected reliably at distances on the order of 100 kilometers downwind from small reprocessing plants. It could therefore be feasible to install detectors outside military complexes to confirm nonintrusively that a country is not separating plutonium inside.

It has proven more difficult so far to detect clandestine uranium enrichment programs. It is widely believed that any uranium that might leak from a facility would be quickly diluted in the atmosphere to the point where it could no longer be detected against the background of naturally occurring uranium. Uranium is used in centrifuge enrichment plants in the form of gaseous uranium hexafluoride, however, and it appears likely that it will remain tagged by fluorine long after its release. It could therefore be distinguishable from natural uranium quite far downwind.

Click here (PDF) to read the full report.