Civilian HEU: United States

Overview

The United States is a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as a nuclear weapons state (NWS). Although the United States has declared its total Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) stockpile (civil and military HEU), it does not voluntarily declare its civilian HEU holdings to the IAEA as part of its annual declaration of plutonium stocks (INFCIRC/549). [1] Overall U.S. HEU holdings are estimated at 439 tons, of which 93 tons are designated for civil uses, 86 tons are available for down-bending or are in spent fuel, and approximately 260 tons are military materials. [2]

The United States has focused significant diplomatic and financial efforts on minimizing civil HEU worldwide, through conversion or shutdown of research reactors at home and abroad, fuel repatriation, and movement toward HEU-free medical isotope production.

Production, Use, and Commerce

Production and Use
The United States ended Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) production in 1992, but continues to use HEU for military and civilian purposes, and to engage in HEU commerce. The United States has eight remaining reactors that utilize civil HEU, including two advanced Test Reactors (ATR and ATR-C); the TREAT Reactor at Idaho National Laboratory; GE-NTR in Pleasanton California; the High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory; the MIT Reactor-II (MITR) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the Missouri University Research Reactor (MURR) at the University of Missouri in Columbia; and the National Bureau of Standards Reactor (NBSR) at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. [3]

Commerce
Under the 1953 Atoms for Peace initiative, the United States promoted nuclear science and the peaceful use of nuclear technology worldwide. A 1954 amendment to the Atomic Energy Act allowed for bilateral nuclear agreements with friends and allies. [4] These agreements initially only envisioned the export of LEU fuel. Soon, however, new high-powered research and test reactors that required low-density uranium fuels enriched to 90-93% were constructed abroad. As a result, in the mid-1960s the United States began to export HEU fuel for their use. [5]

Concerns about the proliferation potential of U.S. HEU exports subsequently emerged, and in 1978 the United States created the Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) Program, to design and qualify appropriate LEU fuel substitutes. The program assists in the conversion of research and test reactors in the United States and abroad from HEU to LEU fuel, so that these facilities will no longer require U.S.-origin HEU fuel. [6]

In 1992, Congress focused its efforts on further restricting U.S. exports of HEU through the passage of the Schumer Amendment to the Energy Policy Act. This legislation conditioned exports of U.S.-origin HEU on the following criteria: (1) that there was no existing alternative LEU fuel for the reactor in question; (2) that the facility agreed to convert to LEU fuel as soon as it became available; and (3) that the United States was actively developing an alternative LEU fuel suitable for that facility. [7]

According to a 1996 DOE HEU Report, the United States exported approximately 25.6 metric tons of HEU, containing 18.6 metric tons of U-235 through 1996. These exports were provided for civil applications, including as fuel for research reactors and as targets for the production of medical isotopes. [8] The material was transferred primarily to the Euratom countries, Canada, and Japan. Exports declined considerably in the 1980s and, after the passage of the Schumer Amendment, continued on a downward trend until 1996, when no HEU was exported. [9]

In 2005, this decline was reversed when the Burr Amendment to the National Energy Policy Act allowed the United States to license the export of HEU to several countries without requiring them to convert their research reactors to an LEU-based production process. Between 2005 and 2012, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensed over a dozen export transactions to France, Belgium, and Canada for use as target material and reactor fuel. [10]

The Burr Amendment reflected Congressional concerns about the supply vulnerabilities of the critical medical isotope Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99). The United States has no domestic Mo-99 production capability, despite the fact that the U.S. market represents roughly 50% of global demand. [11] Mo-99 has few global producers and an extremely short shelf-life that makes it impossible to stockpile. [12] Since 2005, the reliability of the Mo-99 supply has been repeatedly called into question. In 2009, unanticipated shutdowns of Canada's Mo-99 production, coinciding with a maintenance shutdown at the HFR reactor in the Netherlands, triggered repeated shortages of Mo-99 in the United States. [13]

U.S. policy has increasingly aimed to level the economic playing field for new LEU-based producers, who otherwise find it difficult to compete with established HEU-based producers. [14] In 2010, the NNSA announced that a consortium of producers from South Africa and Australia would begin to supply LEU-based Mo-99 to the United States. This consortium has, at times, supplied as much as a third of the Mo-99 market for diagnostic procedures in the United States. [15] In addition, the NNSA has worked with the IAEA to develop small-scale regional production capabilities in Eastern Europe and Latin America, and has encouraged establishment of a domestic production capability. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) authorized a construction permit in early 2016 for a Mo-99 facility to be built in Janesville, Wisconsin. This facility will utilize an accelerator-driven subcritical assembly in place of a reactor, and LEU targets. [16] At the March 2012 Nuclear Security Summit, Belgium, France, and the Netherlands committed to convert their Mo-99 production to LEU by 2015. Although these commitments have been delayed, [17] ongoing efforts are scheduled for completion by 2017. [18] The United States promised to supply "the necessary HEU target material to ensure uninterrupted production of medical isotopes" to these countries up to their conversion deadline. [19]

In order to achieve both security of supply and HEU minimization goals, the U.S. government supports significant incentives to LEU producers. [20] Congress approved legislation on the issue, [21] financial incentives were written into the 2013 Center for Medicare and Medicaid payment rules, [22] and the White House has encouraged the OECD's Nuclear Energy Agency to examine additional incentives for LEU-based medical isotope production. [23] Additionally, President Obama signed the American Medical Isotopes Production Act of 2011 (AMIPA) on January 2, 2013, [24] which provides support for the production of Mo-99 without the use of HEU in the United States, and requests the phase-out of U.S. HEU exports over seven years, albeit with a 6-year-delay exception clause in case the termination of such exports would unduly harm Mo-99 supply. [25]

At the final Nuclear Security Summit the United States was party to a Joint Statement on EU-US HEU exchange. Euratom member states committed to transfer unirradiated, excess HEU to the U.S. for down-blending in exchange for U.S.- supplied HEU for research reactors and isotope production facilitates. This agreement seeks to address the continued reliance on HEU in some facilities, while maintaining a reliable supply of medical isotopes, and at the same time achieving HEU minimization goals. [26]

Efforts to Reduce and Eliminate Civilian Use HEU

Over the past several decades, the United States has led international initiatives to convert research and test reactors, repatriate HEU fuel worldwide, and develop HEU-free fuel for reactors and targets for Mo-99 production capabilities. Efforts such as the Nuclear Security Summits, initiated by President Obama, have focused the world's attention on nuclear security issues, with specific focus on the challenges posed by HEU in civilian applications.

In April 2016, the final Nuclear Security Summit was held in Washington, DC. The United States was party to several notable announcements and achievements in furthering the minimization and elimination of HEU in civil applications. [27] In addition, the U.S. was signatory to a Joint Statement reaffirming the importance of continued cooperation on the development and testing of high-density LEU fuel, [28] as well as to a 'gift basket' signed by twenty-two countries that pledged to implement a comprehensive plan towards the minimization and ultimate elimination of HEU from civil use. [29]

U.S. programs focused on assisting other countries with minimization are extensively discussed in Past and Current Civilian HEU Reduction Efforts.

The United States has not converted a reactor domestically since 2009, as the remaining eight domestic reactors will be technically challenging to convert. The National Academies of Science released a report in early 2016 critiquing U.S. domestic conversion efforts. [30] The report argues that the U.S. decision to focus on the development of monolithic fuels, as opposed to dispersion fuels, has inhibited conversion of some facilities to LEU. The U.S. has pursued a "one size fits all" conversion plan, which has delayed conversion of the facilities which could be converted using dispersion fuel. [31] The report also raises questions concerning long-term U.S. commitment to domestic reactor conversion. It estimates that development of a suitable monolithic fuel is still at least 10-15 years from realization, at which time most of the reactors in question will be up for either license renewal or decommissioning. Thus an interim solution is recommended to increase materials safety while high-density fuel and long-term strategies are developed.

Sources:
[1] Regarding military stockpile declarations, see: The International Panel on Fissile Materials, "Global Fissile Material Report 2013: Increasing Transparency of Nuclear Warhead and Fissile Material Stocks as a Step toward Disarmament," October 22, 2013, pp. 6, 10, www.fissilematerials.org; Regarding the United States' Information Circular, see for instance: "Communication Received from the United States of America Concerning its Policies Regarding the Management of Plutonium," INFCIRC/549/Add.6/15, October 29, 2012, www.iaea.org.
[2] "Fact Sheet: Transparency in the U.S. Highly Enriched Uranium Inventory," The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, March 31, 2016. In March 2016 the United States, demonstrate leadership and transparency in nuclear materials security. The White House publically released the United States' total HEU holding, HEU stocks declared excess to national security needs, and efforts to down-blend HEU to LEU. Total HEU stocks declared in 2013 were 585.6 tons. Out of this, 239 tons were declared as excess to national security needs, and 86 tons remained for down blending or are in spent reactor fuel. Of the 239 tons of HEU declared excess, approximately 146 tons have been down-blended to LEU, leaving about 93 tons for civil use. It is estimated then, that approximately 260 tons remain in, or available for weapons. Of the 86.2 tons, 41.6 are available for down blending, while the remaining 44.6 tons are in spent reactor fuel.
[3] "Reducing the Use of Highly Enriched Uranium in Civilian Research Reactors," Committee on the Current Status of and Progress Toward Eliminating Highly Enriched Uranium Use in Fuel for Civilian Research and Test Reactors, The National Academies Press, January 28 2016.
[4] Anya Loukianova and Cristina Hansell, "Leveraging U.S. Policy for a Global Commitment to HEU Elimination," The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, July 2008, p. 161.
[5] Anya Loukianova and Cristina Hansell, "Leveraging U.S. Policy for a Global Commitment to HEU Elimination," The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, July 2008, p. 161.
[6] Anya Loukianova and Cristina Hansell, "Leveraging U.S. Policy for a Global Commitment to HEU Elimination," The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, July 2008, p. 162.
[7] "Highly Enriched Uranium: Striking a Balance," United States Department of Energy, National Nuclear Security Administration, Office of the Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs, January 2001, revision 1, p. 96, retrieved at: www.fas.org.
[8] "U.S. Needs Stronger Export Controls on Highly Enriched Uranium," Union of Concerned Scientists, November 21, 2008, www.ucsusa.org.
[9] Anya Loukianova and Cristina Hansell, "Leveraging U.S. Policy for a Global Commitment to HEU Elimination," The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, July 2008, p. 164.
[10] Written statement of Margaret M. Doane, director of the office of international programs, United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on the American Medical Isotope Production Act of 2011, January 2011, www.energy.senate.gov.
[11] James Harvey, "Alternative Production of Mo99," presentation given at the 2013 SNMMI Winter Meeting, New Orleans, U.S.A., p. 3, www.snm.org; Cristina Hansell, "Nuclear Medicine's Double Standard," The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, July 2008.
[12] Miles Pomper, "HEU Minimization after the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit," paper presented at the International Nuclear Materials Management conference in Orlando, Florida, United States, July 2012.
[13] Committee on Medical Isotope Production without Highly Enriched Uranium, National Research Council, "Medical Isotope Production without Highly Enriched Uranium," National Academy of Sciences, 2009, pp. 1-15.
[14] Miles Pomper, "HEU Minimization after the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit," paper presented at the International Nuclear Materials Management conference in Orlando, Florida, United States, July 2012.
[15] National Nuclear Security Administration, "Record Levels of Non-HEU-Based Mo-99 Supplied to the United States," NNSA Press Release, June 2, 2011, www.nnsa.energy.gov. It should be noted, however, that as of mid-2012, NECSA still supplied HEU-based Mo-99 to Europe because it is not yet licensed to supply LEU-based Mo-99 there.
[16] "NRC to issue license for MO-99 facility," World Nuclear News, February 29, 2016.
[17] Michelle Cann, Kelsey Davenport, Jenna Parker, "The Nuclear Security Summit: Progress Report on the Joint Statements," An Arms Control Association and Partnership for Global Security Report, March 2015.
[18] Bernard Ponsard, "Irradiation of LEU Targets in the BR2 Reactor for Mo-99 Production," Mo-99 Topical Meeting on Molybdenum-99 Technological Development, August 31-September 3, 2015, http://mo99.ne.anl.gov.
[19] "Belgium-France-Netherlands-United States Joint Statement: Minimization of HEU and the Reliable Supply of Medical Radioisotopes," State Department press release, March 26, 2012, www.whitehouse.gov.
[20] "Encouraging Reliable Supplies of Molybdenum-99 Produced without Highly Enriched Uranium," The White House Office of the Press Secretary, June 7, 2011, www.whitehouse.gov.
[21] Regarding the debates in Congress, see for instance: Jared Berenter, "Argentina: Medical Isotope Production," Nuclear Terrorism and Global Security: The Challenge of Phasing Out Highly Enriched Uranium, eds. Alan J. Kuperman (Abingdon: Routledge: 2013), pp. 38-39; "Public Health and Nuclear Experts Warn Against Importing Russian Medical Isotopes," press release by the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project, January 18, 2012, http://blogs.utexas.edu.
[22] Roy W. Brown, "An Update on the Conversion from Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) to Low Enriched Uranium (LEU)," presentation given at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Technical Meeting on Conversion Planning for Molybenum-99 (Mo-99) Production Facilities, slides dated May 23, 2013, p. 9, www.iaea.org; Lantheus Medical Imaging, Inc., "Lantheus' Low-Enriched Uranium (LEU) Technelite® Generator is Now Available," January 2013, www.lantheus.com.
[23] Douglas P. Guarino, "U.S. Proposes Bigger Medicare Payouts to Avoid Bomb-Grade Uranium," Global Security Newswire, July 11, 2012, www.nti.org.
[24] "Lantheus Introduces Low-Enriched Uranium (LEU) Tc-99m Generator," Diagnostic and interventional Cardiology, January 16, 2013, www.dicardiology.com.
[25] Jared Berenter, "Argentina: Medical Isotope Production," Nuclear Terrorism and Global Security: The Challenge of Phasing Out Highly Enriched Uranium, eds. Alan J. Kuperman (Abingdon: Routledge: 2013), pp. 38-39.
[26] "Joint Statement on EU-US HEU Exchange: Joint Statement on the Exchange of Highly Enriched Uranium Needed for Supply of European Research Reactors and Isotope Production Facilities," Nuclear Security Summit 2016, April 1, 2016.
[27] These include the announcement of the removal of over 500kg of HEU and Plutonium from Japan, U.S. assistance in clearing Argentina of HEU, and cooperation between Germany and the U.S. in the repatriation of HEU to the U.S. "Joint Statement on U.S. - Japan Cooperation," Nuclear Security Summit 2016, April 1, 2016; "Fact Sheet: Eliminating all Highly Enriched Uranium from Argentina," The White House Office of the Press Secretary, April 1, 2016; "Fact Sheet: Nuclear Material Removal from Germany," The White House: Office of the Press Secretary, April 1, 2016.
[28] The signatories are Belgium, France, Germany, Republic of Korea, and the U.S. "Joint Statement on Multilateral Cooperation on High Density Low-Enriched Uranium Fuel Development for High-Performance Research Reactors," Nuclear Security Summit 2016, April 2016.
[29] These countries include Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Chile, Denmark, Finland, Georgia, Indonesia, Mexico, Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway, Philippines, Poland, Republic of Korea, Romania, Singapore, Sweden, United Kingdom, and United States. "NSS 2016: Gift Basket on Minimizing and Eliminating the Use of Highly Enriched Uranium in Civil Applications," Nuclear Security Summit 2016, April 2016.
[30] "Reducing the Use of Highly Enriched Uranium in Civilian Research Reactors," Committee on the Current Status of and Progress Toward Eliminating Highly Enriched Uranium Use in Fuel for Civilian Research and Test Reactors, The National Academies Press, January 28, 2016.
[31] "Reducing the Use of Highly Enriched Uranium in Civilian Research Reactors," Committee on the Current Status of and Progress Toward Eliminating Highly Enriched Uranium Use in Fuel for Civilian Research and Test Reactors, The National Academies Press, January 28, 2016.

April 26, 2016
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About

The article is part of a collection examining civilian HEU reduction and elimination efforts. It details current U.S. HEU policies, progress reducing and eliminating the civil use of HEU in the United States, and remaining challenges.

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