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International Politics of Civilian HEU Elimination

  • 2010 NPT Review Conference 2010 NPT Review Conference
  • G8 leaders and leaders of emerging economies, Gleneagles, UK G8 leaders and leaders of emerging economies, Gleneagles, UK
  • G8 leaders and leaders of emerging economies, Gleneagles, UK G8 leaders and leaders of emerging economies, Gleneagles, UK
  • International Atomic Energy Agency International Atomic Energy Agency
  • 2010 Nuclear Security Summit 2010 Nuclear Security Summit

International Politics of Civilian HEU Elimination

An increasing number of countries recognize the risks associated with the civilian use, storage, and transfer of highly enriched uranium (HEU). These countries are concerned that non-state actors-and in particular terrorist groups-might gain access to HEU and use it to build and detonate nuclear explosives. Proposals to severely constrain or eliminate civilian use of HEU have come not only from national governments, but also from international organizations. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the organization involved in reactor conversion, HEU fuel repatriation, and the promotion of nuclear security, has also initiated a series of workshops to look at the technical issues involved in HEU conversion. For any of these initiatives to be realized, however, an emerging global consensus must be buttressed by further diplomatic and practical measures.

Proposals to reduce HEU use have been advanced during the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) review process, by the Group of Eight (G8), and during the Nuclear Security Summit process. France, with support from the United States, has been promoting the adoption of HEU guidelines. Other initiatives-including UN Security Council Resolutions 1540 and 1887, the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, and the Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism-are also relevant to a comprehensive approach to material proliferation risks.

Until the 2009 UN Security Council commitments, only a handful of countries had supported HEU minimization as a policy. These included Kyrgyzstan, Lithuania, Norway, Sweden, and the United States. Many countries, however, had been involved in programs to reduce the use of HEU in practice, through programs such as Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors (RERTR) and the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI). The latter was established by the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to "identify, secure, remove and/or facilitate the disposition of high risk vulnerable nuclear and radiological materials around the world." [1] Numerous countries have joined HEU minimization efforts since the initiation of the Nuclear Security Summit process.

Nevertheless, these efforts continue to face a number of challenges, both technical and political. The latter category includes resistance from some countries such as Belarus, which suspended HEU elimination talks with the United States in a tit-for-tat response to the imposition of U.S. sanctions, and South Africa, which sees its HEU stocks as economically valuable and a bargaining chip in its push for nuclear disarmament. [2]

The Non-Proliferation Treaty Process

One venue for discussion of the elimination of HEU in the civilian sphere has been the NPT Review Conference (RevCon), which is held every five years. At the NPT RevCon in 1995, eight European countries (Austria, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden), together with Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, drafted a text to be included in the Conference's final document recommending "that no new civil reactors requiring highly-enriched uranium be constructed" (Cf. Document NPT/CONF.1995/MC.II/WP.8 (21 April 1995)). However, the German delegation fought against such a formulation, as it conflicted with German plans for a new HEU-fueled research reactor, the FRM-II. [3] This set the stage for future negotiations. Countries such as Kyrgyzstan continued to press for more steps toward enhancing "the security of existing stockpiles of highly enriched uranium, while consolidating them, reducing their size, and moving toward the elimination of the use of highly enriched uranium in the civilian sector." [4] At the 2010 RevCon, however, procedural issues and preoccupation with other challenges saw states devote much less attention to HEU minimization than expected. [5]

The Conference's Final Document settled for language "encouraging states concerned, on a voluntary basis, to further minimize [HEU] in civilian stocks and use, where technically and economically feasible." [6] Dissatisfied with the lack of practical progress since the 2010 RevCon, ten states (Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, Poland, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates) formed the "Friends of the Non-Proliferation Treaty" group. Meeting in Berlin in April 2011, the group called for a prohibition on a global scale of weapon-usable nuclear material "to curb the risk of future nuclear arms races and reduce the danger of non-state actors getting such material into their hands." [7]

The G8 Global Partnership Initiative

The Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, established at the G8 Kananaskis Summit in 2002, committed the G8 (the seven major industrial countries: France, the United States, Britain, Germany, Japan, Italy, and Canada, also known as the G7, plus Russia), "to prevent terrorists or those that harbor them from acquiring or developing....radiological or nuclear weapons...". To that end, the G8 subscribed to a six-point program including, inter alia, "promoting multilateral treaties aimed at preventing the spread of weapons, materials and know how; and accounting for and securing these items so as to ensure against any state or group having access to it." The group earmarked $20 billion over ten years to fund a variety of nonproliferation and weapons reduction projects, including HEU reduction work. The United States pledged to provide $10 billion toward this end. This initiative earned the informal title of "10 plus 10 over 10," a reference to its implementation scheme.

The G8 action plan issued at the G8 Sea Island Summit in 2004 elaborated a series of actions to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation and the acquisition of nuclear materials and technologies by terrorists. This included support for projects "to eliminate over time the use of HEU fuel in research reactors worldwide, secure and remove fresh and spent HEU fuel, control and secure radiation sources, strengthen export control and border security." [8] The G8 Gleneagles Statement on Non-Proliferation of June 2005 also made indirect reference to HEU elimination under the heading of "Nuclear Safety and Security." The 2005 G8 Global Partnership Annual Report noted the "cooperation of Russia and the United States to convert research reactors to LEU (low enriched) fuel" and the repatriation of Russian-origin HEU fuel "from a number of countries, most of which are not involved directly in the Global Partnership." [9] This language referred to a U.S.-Russian initiative to improve the security of nuclear weapons and fissile materials in Bratislava, Slovakia in 2005, whereby Russia pledged to remove Soviet-origin HEU from research reactors outside its territories.

At the 2011 summit in Deauville, France, the Global Partnership's mandate was extended beyond the year 2012, and the group was opened to new state members. [10] The partner nations committed to working on four priority areas, including the security of nuclear and radiological materials, biosecurity, the engagement of scientists, and the implementation of UNSCR 1540-all agreed upon in the declaration of the 2010 summit of the group in Muskoka, Canada. Despite the extension, the final 2011 document offered few specifics regarding funding pledges or implementation timelines. [11] In 2012, a specialized sub-group dedicated to nuclear and radiological security was established. International organizations were invited to the working group meetings for the first time that year in an effort to deepen integration and to facilitate expansion beyond the original member states. [12]

United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1540 and 1887

The objective of UNSCR 1540 is to prevent individuals and organizations such as terrorist groups from having access to nuclear weapons and other WMD. While not directly addressing the use of HEU in civil nuclear activity, it does mandate that states develop effective measures to account for and secure materials that could contribute to nuclear weapons. These include appropriate effective physical protection measures and appropriate effective border controls and law enforcement efforts to prevent illicit trafficking of weapons and related materials. [13] On 20 April 2011, the Security Council voted to extend the mandate of the 1540 Committee, which monitors the implementation of these efforts, for an additional 10 years. [14]

In September 2009, the Security Council further committed to working toward the reduction of nuclear weapons and global nuclear dangers by adopting UNSCR 1887. In addition to calling for nuclear arms reductions, a strengthened NPT, greater support for the IAEA, and more robust export controls, the resolution also encouraged states to share best practices for improving nuclear safety and security standards in order to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism and to secure vulnerable nuclear materials within four years. Crucially, the resolution called on states to "minimize to the greatest extent that is technically and economically feasible the use of highly enriched uranium for civilian purposes, including by working to convert research reactors and radioisotope production processes to the use of low enriched uranium fuels and targets." [15] UNSCR 1887 also reaffirmed the need for full implementation of UNSCR 1540.

International Atomic Energy Agency

While the IAEA has played a productive role in the technical side of HEU minimization, it has not taken a leadership role in the policy sphere, because of disagreements among its members about this issue. Indeed, the Non-Aligned Movement has expressed general concern that the main threat lies in nuclear weapons possession rather than material in the civilian sector, and that too much attention to the latter would the raise costs of peaceful nuclear uses and diminish international cooperation. [16] Yet, "the IAEA Office of Nuclear Security, if adequately funded, could usefully serve as the focal point for collecting information on the status of nuclear security activities launched under the NSS [Nuclear Security Summit] process." [17] In a statement to the 2005 RevCon, former IAEA Director General Mohamed El-Baradei called on countries "to minimize, and eventually eliminate, the use of high enriched uranium in peaceful nuclear applications." [18] However, only IAEA member states can empower the organization to promote actions in this sphere. The initial steps toward such a resolution were made by Norway at the IAEA General Conference in September 2005. Both the Norwegian and U.S. delegations called for action in this area in their statements to the General Conference; the United States stated that governments around the world should adopt the goal to "phase-out the commercial use of highly enriched uranium," while Norway's statement called for a "long-term target of reaching agreement on a prohibition of civilian uses." [19]

The Norwegian government and the International Atomic Energy Agency held a symposium on the minimization of HEU in the civilian nuclear sector from 17 to 20 June 2006 in order to examine both technical and policy issues related to HEU reduction. The technical workshop resulted in unprecedented consensus in regard to the technical aspects of conversion, while there was less agreement during the policy discussion at the symposium. [20] Promoters of HEU minimization point out that the initiative is non-discriminatory, as it applies to all states' civilian programs. Moreover, as nuclear weapon states currently use more HEU in the civilian sphere than other states, they would be disproportionately affected by the adoption of such a policy.

In cooperation with the IAEA, the European Nuclear Society holds the annual International Topical Meeting on Research Reactor Fuel Management. The main issue during these conferences continues to be "the development of very high density low-enriched uranium fuel, as well as the conversion of the most demanding high-flux research reactors to use LEU instead of HEU." [21] The IAEA, for its part, has conducted several meetings. In February 2006, a technical workshop was held to examine the options for expanding the IAEA database on research reactors to include the information needed for a global effort to reduce HEU use, including broadening it to include all civilian HEU uses. The Agency also continues to assist in minimizing the use of HEU for medical isotope production and in the repatriation of HEU to its countries of origin. As IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano stated in his speech at the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit, the IAEA has "helped to repatriate more than one tonne of highly enriched uranium research reactor fuel to the countries which produced it." However, he also stressed that "responsibility for nuclear security rests with each sovereign state." [22]

Nuclear Security Summit

President Obama's "Prague Speech" on 5 April 2009 presented a bold vision for his administration's approach to the role of nuclear weapons in the twenty-first century, including a commitment by Washington to the long-term goal of zero nuclear weapons. Obama also announced an international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world within four years, beginning with "a Global Summit on Nuclear Security" that the United States would host the following year. [23] From 12 to 13 April 2010, President Obama hosted the leaders of 47 nations at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC. Those present endorsed the goal of securing vulnerable nuclear materials within the four-year timeframe. The Summit Communiqué called for, inter alia, "focused national efforts to improve security and accounting of nuclear materials and strengthen regulations - with a special focus on plutonium and [HEU]" and the "consolidation of stocks of [HEU] and plutonium and reduction in the use of" HEU. The Summit Work Plan called on states to convert "civilian facilities that use highly enriched uranium to non-weapons-usable materials. [24]

To date, the Summit process has promoted the implementation of commitments by 29 attending states to secure and repatriate their civil HEU stocks. For example, Kazakhstan secured over 10 metric tons of HEU, Chile sent all of its HEU to the United States, and Ukraine repatriated all of its HEU stocks to Russia. [25] The second Nuclear Security Summit took place in Seoul in 2012, and was attended by 53 heads of state. Participants reported their progress and pledged to accelerate their HEU reduction efforts. The Summit's Communiqué encouraged "states to take measures to minimize the use of HEU, including through the conversion of reactors from highly enriched to low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel, where technically and economically feasible, taking into account the need for assured supplies of medical isotopes, and encourage States in a position to do so, by the end of 2013, to announce voluntary specific actions intended to minimize the use of HEU." It also encouraged states to "promote the use of LEU fuels and targets in commercial applications such as isotope production, and in this regard, "welcome[d] relevant international cooperation on high-density LEU fuel to support the conversion of research and test reactors." [26]

At the Summit, European producers committed to reducing their reliance on HEU for medical production, other states pledged to repatriate their HEU stocks, and still others agreed to accelerate cooperation on research and development of the high-density fuels required for the conversion of some research reactors. However, France's advocacy of HEU management guidelines similar to existing plutonium guidelines proved too controversial for adoption. A follow-on summit will be held in the Netherlands in 2014.

The Way Forward

The initiatives discussed here, when taken together with national programs, provide the key elements that, given strong political leadership, could be used to eliminate much of the HEU in use in the civilian sphere. However, continued political commitment and proper coordination will be required to fully implement these initiatives.

It is important to note that the current proposals for HEU minimization cover only civilian use of the material. There is, however, another initiative aimed at halting the production of fissile material (both HEU and plutonium) for military purposes: a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) or Fissile Material Treaty (FMT). [Unlike an FMCT, an FMT would also address existing stocks of weapons material.]

Many countries have been involved in RERTR and other programs to reduce civil use of HEU. Other states, such as China, have independently studied options for HEU reduction at domestic reactors. Most countries have taken care to design their new research reactors to use LEU fuel.

The inaugural Nuclear Security Summit and its 2012 successor together form an important mechanism for drawing high-level attention to the issue of fissile materials security, facilitating information sharing, and providing an incentive for states to follow through on their commitments. The continuation of such meetings has been confirmed until 2016, to ensure the institutionalization of these activities and help insulate nuclear security work from budget cuts. The second International Symposium on HEU minimization, co-hosted by Austria, Norway, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, took place in January 2012 in Vienna, and identified a number of challenges. For example, the complexity of optimizing for security during transit, security during storage, and speed of reduction efforts of HEU material was highlighted. [27]

The two main civilian uses of HEU that continue to pose challenges for the future are the use of HEU targets for the production of medical isotopes, and the use of HEU for fast reactor fuel research. Other uses that may re-emerge include the use of HEU fuel for space reactors or propulsion reactors in a new generation of Russian icebreakers. Further reduction of HEU use is likely. Several countries have begun production of medical isotopes using LEU targets; South Africa has even begun this process on an industrial scale. Since other producers have argued that industrial-scale production is not financially viable, South Africa's experience will be important in this regard. As for fast reactors, only those with a high conversion ratio (above unity) would require either plutonium or HEU. [28] It is unlikely that new civilian reactors will be built using HEU fuel, while fuel research can be conducted using an extremely limited number of critical facilities that use either HEU or plutonium to mock-up the fast reactor fuel. Despite these positive trends, fully converting all existing research reactors and removing all fresh and spent HEU fuel currently in civilian use is a costly and time-consuming undertaking which has been underway for nearly three decades.

[1] National Nuclear Security Administration, "GTRI: Reducing Nuclear Threats," NNSA, April 12, 2013, http://nnsa.energy.gov.
[2] Pavel Podvig, "Belarus Suspends HEU Removal Talks with the United States," International Panel on Fissile Materials, August 19, 2011, http://fissilematerials.org; Noel Stott, "Motivations and Capabilities to Acquire Nuclear, Biological, or Chemical Weapons and Missiles: South Africa?" in Over the Horizon Proliferation Threats, James J. Wirtz, Peter R. Lavoy, eds., (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), pp. 73, 75-76; Abdul Samad Minty, "South African Perspectives on Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU)," presentation for the International Symposium on HEU Minimization, Vienna, Austria, June 2006, www.nrpa.no.
[3] Wolfgang Liebert, "New German Research Reactor Using Highly-Enriched Uranium (HEU) Raises Concern," International Network of Engineers and Scientists Against Proliferation Briefing Paper No. 6, 1998, www.inesap.org.
[4] Statement by H.E. Nurbek Jeenbaev, Permanent Representative of the Kyrgyz Republic to the UN at the 2005 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, New York, United States, May 3, 2005, www.un.org.
[5] William Potter, et al., "The 2010 NPT Review Conference: Deconstructing Consensus," The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, 17 June 2010, www.nonproliferation.org.
[6] United Nations, "2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Final Document: Volume 1," 2010, www.un.org.
[7] "10 States Call For More Action on Nonproliferation," Global Security Newswire, May 2, 2011, www.nti.org.
[8] G8, "G8 Action Plan on Nonproliferation," Sea Island, June 9, 2004, retrieved at: http://dosfan.lib.uic.edu.
[9] G8 Global Partnership Annual Report, G8 Senior Group, June 2005, G8 Gleneagles Summit, p. 6, www.fco.gov.uk.
[10] Office of the Spokesperson, "The Philippines Joins G8 Global Partnership as 26th Member," U.S. Department of State Media Note, June 17, 2013, www.state.gov.
[11] Martin Matishak, "G-8 Nonproliferation Effort Renewed," Global Security Newswire, May 31, 2011, www.nti.org.
[12] U.S. Department of State, "Global Partnership 2013: The United States Chairmanship of the Global Partnership in 2012," www.state.gov.
[13] United Nations Security Council, "Resolution 1540 (2004)," 4956th meeting of the Security Council, April 28, 2004, www.un.org.
[14] Department of Public Information, "Security Council Extends Mandate of 1540 Committee for 10 Years, Unanimously Adopting Resolution 1977 (2011)," United Nations, April 20, 2011, www.un.org.
[15] United Nations Security Council, "Resolution 1887 (2009)," 6191st meeting of the Security Council, September 24, 2009, http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org; Office of the Press Secretary, "Fact Sheet on the United Nations Security Council Summit on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Nuclear Disarmament: UNSC Resolution 1887," White House, September 24, 2009, www.whitehouse.gov.
[16] William C. Potter, Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, Nuclear Politics and the Non-Aligned Movement (Routledge: The Interntional Institute for Strategic Studies, 2012), p. 125.
[17] William C. Potter, "International Cooperation for Nuclear Security: Designing a New Architecture Based on Lessons from Prior Experiences," 2013, p. 7.
[18] Mohamed El-Baradei Statement, Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons 2005 Review Conference, United Nations, New York, May 2, 2005, IAEA, www.iaea.org.
[19] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway, Statement at the IAEA General Conference, September 28, 2005, www.regjeringen.no.
[20] "Minimization of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) in the Civilian Sector," International Symposium, Nobel Peace Center, Oslo, June 17-20, 2006, www.nrpa.no/symposium. [See a report on the proceedings, "The Oslo Symposium: On the Road to HEU Minimization."]
[21] Staff Report, "Search for a Fuel Solution: Research Reactor Fuel Management Meeting in Vienna Focuses on Non-Proliferation," International Atomic Energy Agency, March 24, 2009, www.iaea.org; European Nuclear Society, International Topical Meeting on Research Reactor Fuel Management, 2010, www.euronuclear.org.
[22] Yukiya Amano statement, Nuclear Security Summit, Washington, DC, April 13, 2010, www.iaea.org.
[23] Office of the Press Secretary, "Remarks by President Barack Obama," White House, Hradčany Square: Prague, Czech Republic, April 5, 2009, www.whitehouse.gov.
[24] Office of the Press Secretary, "Key Facts about the Nuclear Security Summit," White House, April 13, 2010, www.whitehouse.gov.
[25] Robert Golan-Vilella, Michelle Marchesano, and Sarah Williams, "The 2010 Nuclear Security Summit: A Status Update," April 2011, pp. 13-24, www.armscontrol.org.
[26] "Seoul Communiqué: 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit, " March 26-27, 2012, retrieved at: www.un.org.
[27] "Summary of the 2nd International Symposium on HEU Minimization," Nuclear Threat Initiative, January 25, 2012, www.nti.org.
[28] Massachusetts Institute of Technology Nuclear Fuel Cycle Study Advisory Committee, "The Future of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle: an Interdisciplinary MIT Study," 2011, p. 12, retrieved at: http://mitei.mit.edu.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.


The article is part of a collection examining civilian HEU reduction and elimination efforts. It examines the international political climate surrounding civil HEU reduction and elimination, and remaining challenges.

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