Blog Post - Nuclear Security Matters

All HEU Removed from Georgia, Again

| Jan. 12, 2016

In 1998, in Operation Auburn Endeavor, the U.S. government helped fly 4.3 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and low-enriched uranium (LEU) from vulnerable facilities in war-torn Georgia to the Dounreay reprocessing plant in the United Kingdom. At the time, those in the U.S. government involved in the project, myself included, thought that was all the HEU there was in Georgia. So it was a surprise when the IAEA announced the removal of another 1.83 kilograms of HEU from Georgia – apparently now really the last of the HEU there.

Though the recent removal was small, any removal of HEU from a potentially vulnerable location is cause for some New Year’s celebration, and this one is significant for at least two reasons.  First, the surprise: for years, both U.S. government and non-government experts thought the HEU had been cleaned out from Georgia.  Finding this unexpected 1.83 kilograms of HEU – reportedly 35 percent enriched, formerly used for the shut-down Breeder-1 neutron source in Georgia – raises the obvious question: how many other small stocks in other countries may turn up in the future? (Years ago, another incident raised the same point: when National Nuclear Security Administration officials were visiting a university research reactor, they were shown a plate with roughly a kilogram of HEU they had been completely unaware of – in what was basically a janitor’s closet.) 

Second, the shipment makes clear that despite the cutoff of most U.S.-Russian nuclear cooperation, and its hostile relations with Georgia, Russia is still willing to take back HEU.  (Indeed, a few months before the Georgian shipment, the last HEU was removed from Uzbekistan and shipped to Russia for processing.)  In 1998, relations between Georgia and Russia were already bad enough that Russia was uninterested in taking the enriched uranium, forcing the shipment to Dounreay.  Yet today, with relations between Georgia and Russia far worse than they were then, the material was shipped to the Luch Production Association in the Russian town of Podolsk, which has played a key role in accepting fresh Russian-supplied HEU from other countries and blending it down to LEU (as well as blending down HEU from other sites within Russia). 

Given this HEU surprise, I would argue that:

  • The U.S. government – in collaboration with the IAEA and other interested parties – should continue to regularly update its estimates of where HEU and plutonium exist around the world.
  • The U.S. government should have a blanket policy that wherever plutonium or HEU exists in the world, it will either take it back to be secured in the United States, help arrange its disposition elsewhere, or work to ensure that it has sustainable security that will protect it from the full range of plausible threats while it stays where it is.
  • Indeed, as I’ve argued before, the United States should offer to buy HEU from anyone willing to sell (and willing to promise not to make or get more), perhaps at a rate of $25,000 per kilogram of weapon-grade HEU, and less for less enriched or irradiated material.

Update: In writing this, I failed to notice an excellent earlier International Panel on Fissile Materials blog post that has useful details on the material and the facility it came from.

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For Academic Citation: Bunn, Matthew.All HEU Removed from Georgia, Again .” Nuclear Security Matters, January 12, 2016, https://nuclearsecuritymatters.belfercenter.org/publication/all-heu-removed-georgia-again.

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