Russia's use and stockpiles of highly enriched uranium pose significant nuclear risks

September 13, 2017

Russia currently holds the world's largest stockpile of highly enriched uranium, a nuclear weapon-usable material, posing significant nuclear security risks, according to a recent report issued by the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), a group based at Princeton University and made up of nuclear experts from 16 countries.

The report, "The Use of Highly Enriched Uranium as Fuel in Russia," provides unprecedented details of the military and civilian use of highly enriched uranium in Russia—the only country to produce highly enriched uranium as an export.

Russia's stockpile of highly enriched uranium is estimated to be about 680 tons, and as of 2017, Russia is estimated to use about 8.5 tons of highly enriched uranium annually, a large fraction of which is weapon-grade material. Likewise, Russia currently operates more highly enriched uranium facilities than the rest of the world combined, creating substantial nuclear security risks.

"There has been a great deal of progress in reducing the number of locations where highly enriched uranium can be found outside of Russia. As a result, Russia has become an increasingly important part of the remaining problem," said Frank N. von Hippel, founding co-chair of IPFM and senior research physicist and professor of public and international affairs, emeritus, at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson of Public and International Affairs.

The report was edited by Pavel Podvig, a researcher at Princeton's Program on Science and Global Security, with contributions by six other leading Russian experts.

In addition to its stockpiles, Russia also has a large number of highly enriched uranium facilities—58 nuclear reactors and assemblies—meaning that substantial amounts of highly enriched uranium are moving through the fuel cycle. Highly enriched uranium poses special concerns, the researchers wrote, as it can be used relatively easily in simple nuclear explosive devices by states with limited nuclear weapon expertise or even by non-state actors. Over the past several decades—and especially since 9/11—there have been high-level international initiatives to address these risks, especially for highly enriched uranium for civilian uses, like reactors used for nuclear research.

"Reducing the use of highly enriched uranium in research reactors is a complex but solvable technical task, and promising new fuels are under development in the United States, Europe, and Russia," said Alexander Glaser, co-director of the Program on Science and Global Security, co-chair of the IPFM and associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and international affairs at Princeton.

While Russia has been active in returning its highly enriched uranium from research facilities abroad and has closed down some domestic highly enriched uranium facilities, it has not made highly enriched uranium minimization a priority, according to the report. On the contrary, Russia is working on a number of new projects that involve the use of highly enriched uranium and, in 2012, resumed production of highly enriched uranium for export.

"Russia's participation is essential for the success of the global effort to reduce the risks associated with highly enriched uranium use," said Podvig. "Russia has the ability to make a strong contribution to the international highly enriched uranium minimization effort. This would require launching a new round of international cooperation that would involve Russia's technical community in developing a new strategy for reducing the use of highly enriched uranium."

Securing Russia's commitment to this goal requires development of a comprehensive global highly enriched uranium minimization strategy, according to the report. Given the variety of applications for highly enriched uranium worldwide, such a strategy should include a consistent approach to the use of highly enriched to fuel high-performance civilian reactors, defense-related research facilities, and naval reactors. The report concludes that, eventually, this effort also must address the material security risks associated with stocks for weapons.

Additional information can be found in two already published reports. Von Hippel authored an earlier IPFM report, "Banning the Production of Highly Enriched Uranium," and Glaser was a contributor to the 2016 U.S. National Academies , "Reducing the Use of Highly Enriched Uranium in Civilian Research Reactors."

Explore further: UK-US nuke waste deal to help fight cancer

Related Stories

UK-US nuke waste deal to help fight cancer

March 31, 2016

Britain will team up with the United States and European partners to exchange its nuclear waste for material to be used in the fight against cancer, Prime Minister David Cameron will announce Thursday.

Europe-US deal to curb highly enriched uranium use

March 26, 2012

Three of the world's top suppliers of medical isotopes on Monday announced plans to work toward phasing out the use of highly enriched uranium in the production process under a deal with the United States.

Russian warhead fallout keeps America warm

October 9, 2013

Uranium fuel from 20,000 disarmed Russian warheads are generating about half of US nuclear power in a spinoff from a landmark disarmament accord, a top US official said Wednesday.

US panel approves uranium enrichment plant (Update)

September 25, 2012

(AP)—A nuclear power partnership of General Electric Co. and Tokyo-based Hitachi Ltd. received federal approval Tuesday to build the first plant to enrich uranium for use in commercial reactors using a classified laser ...

Russia: Iran's nuclear plant to get fuel next week

August 13, 2010

(AP) -- Russia will load fuel into Iran's first nuclear power plant next week despite U.S. demands to prevent Iran obtaining nuclear energy until the country proves that it's not pursuing a weapons capacity, officials said ...

Recommended for you

Filter may be a match for fracking water

September 25, 2017

A new filter produced by Rice University scientists has proven able to remove more than 90 percent of hydrocarbons, bacteria and particulates from contaminated water produced by hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations ...

Researchers report new technique for de-icing surfaces

September 21, 2017

Scientists and engineers have been waging a quiet but determined battle against the build-up of ice on infrastructure. A thin coating of ice on solar panels can wreak havoc with their ability to generate electricity. Thin ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.