Changing the Conversation on HEU

The following is an excerpt from a summary of an article co-authored by Corey Hinderstein, Andrew Newman and Ole Reistad of the Norwegian Institute of Energy Technology in July/August issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

Today, there are approximately 1,440 tons of HEU in the world, some of it poorly secured.  Because this material an ideal target for terrorists seeking to build a nuclear weapon, efforts are underway to reduce, secure, and consolidate stocks of HEU. But simply minimizing the use of HEU is no longer sufficient to combat the risk of nuclear terrorism. The international community’s efforts must now turn to elimination, with an initial focus on enhanced transparency and developing stronger international standards for the management of existing HEU inventories.

The authors recommend policy changes in six areas:

  • International commitments: The global community must work to establish a norm where only LEU would be used in new any new facility, process, vessel, design, or construction.  Countries must also review inventory stockpile requirements for HEU in military vessels.
  • Security requirements: To encourage conversion to LEU, countries should adopt security requirements that correspond to material types and link LEU conversion to lower security costs in order to incentivize HEU minimization.
  • Regulatory support: Nuclear and medical regulatory regimes must support attempts to import and use materials made from LEU in place of HEU-based isotopes.
  • Transparency efforts: States should work cooperatively to develop HEU transparency guidelines, like those that exist for plutonium used in civilian facilities.  In the meantime, the international community should encourage voluntary declarations of HEU holdings.
  • International cooperation: The international community must work in concert to enable further progress on HEU minimization, including research and development for new LEU based technologies and facilities and examining options for the management of spent fuel from newly developed LEU-based processes.
  • Naval conversion: The world’s major powers must seriously assess the feasibility of developing LEU fleets in order to strengthen the emerging global norm against the use of HEU for non-weapons purposes.

The fact remains that the less HEU that exists, the less opportunity there is for a terrorist group to acquire the material needed for a nuclear bomb.  As the authors note: “Access to highly enriched uranium is the piece of the terrorist puzzle that is most within our control.”  The conversation must now shift from minimization to elimination. 

Read the full summary.

To read the full article, click here.

The final, definitive version of this paper has been published in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Volume 68/Issue 4, July/August 2012 by SAGE Publications Ltd./SAGE Publications, Inc.  All rights reserved. ©

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Low enriched uranium (LEU)
Low enriched uranium (LEU): Refers to uranium with a concentration of the isotope U-235 that is higher than that found in natural uranium but lower than 20% LEU (usually 3 to 5%). LEU is used as fuel for many nuclear reactor designs.


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