WASHINGTON — Russia and the United States today pledged to conclude a broad agreement governing their cooperation on the retrieval of highly enriched uranium (HEU) of Russian origin from Eastern European and former Soviet countries (see GSN, Nov. 5).
The two countries and the International Atomic Energy Agency have been cooperating since 1999 to recover weapons-usable HEU from research sites in 17 countries and to convert those facilities to use low-enriched uranium. Russian Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev and U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham signed a joint statement today at the Energy Department here that Abraham, speaking before the signing, said signals their intention to conclude an overall government-to-government agreement on such returns, replacing the current “case-by-case” approach.
Abraham and Rumyantsev said in the statement that their agencies “recognize the great significance of transferring high-enriched uranium (HEU) research reactor fuel of Russian origin to the Russian Federation as a mutual contribution to the reduction of global stockpiles of weapons-usable nuclear materials and, therefore, to reducing the threat of international terrorism and preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”
Today’s joint statement indicates that “completion” of the agreement is “in its final stages.” Abraham said the “governments have completed negotiations” on the agreement and that “this agreement will soon be finalized and signed.” Abraham and Rumyantsev added in the statement that “by the end of the year,” their agencies “intend to conduct bilateral consultations … to develop a schedule for all remaining potential shipments of fresh and irradiated HEU fuel.”
The two officials praised the growing U.S.-Russian cooperation and cited the transfer of Russian-origin fuel to Russia from research reactors in Romania and Serbia (see GSN, Sept. 22). Preparations are under way for removing HEU from two countries, including Uzbekistan and an unnamed country which wil have its material removed by the end of the year.
Abraham and Rumyantsev said they would invite other nations to join the pending agreement, for which “more than a dozen other countries will become eligible.”
“This goal of minimizing international commerce in HEU,” said Abraham in his speech, “has long been a pillar of U.S. nonproliferation policy, and this program exemplifies the strength of the U.S.-Russian Federation partnership to reduce the threat of terrorism and prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction. Furthermore, this program inaugurates an important initiative to close a major gap in previous efforts to consolidate HEU dispersed around the world.”
Rumyantsev said before the signing that the statement is “a very important step.”
“I would like that the nuclear power would lead us only to progress and not to some tragic event against which we are fighting for,” the minister said through an interpreter.
About Half of U.S.-Origin Fuel Repatriated, Says Abraham
As the United States promotes efforts to repatriate Russian-origin HEU, Washington has recovered about half of the U.S.-origin fuel it has exported in past decades, Abraham said yesterday in a press briefing with Rumyantsev.
As for the remaining facilities that use U.S.-origin HEU, the United States will continue to supply them with fuel until they can be converted to use low-enriched fuel. For example, the United States continues to provide HEU to a Canadian reactor that produces medical isotopes under an understanding that the reactor will convert at an undetermined point in the future (see GSN, Oct. 6).
“We have set the objective of converting them to low-enriched fuel,” said Paul Longsworth of the National Nuclear Security Administration at the briefing.
Rumyantsev added that some types of nuclear research require HEU and cannot be conducted with lower enrichment levels. Citing his own physics research experience in “neutron scattering,” Rumyantsev said HEU provides the maximum neutron flux of any fuel on a pound-for-pound basis.
“I’m not sure how to achieve the highest flux and use LEU at the same time,” he said.