Thursday, April 08, 2010

US Moving Ahead With Nuclear Weapons Reduction and Nonproliferation Initiatives

President Barack Obama signed the New START treaty today, reducing the current level of US and Russian nuclear warheads by 30%.
The new treaty will shrink the limit of nuclear warheads to 1,550 per country over seven years.

But the two quickly turned serious when they took to the podiums, hailing the moment as an important step to improving the U.S.-Russian relationship and the safety of the world.

Obama, who said last year in a London summit that the American-Russian relationship had started to "drift," said that problem was fixed.

"Together, we stopped that drift, and have proven the benefits of cooperation," he said, arguing that the deal lets the two country start talking about cooperation on missile defense.

Medvedev said that at some points signing the deal — with the old START treating expiring last December — looked like "Mission Impossible."

But he was as upbeat as Obama in hailing it.

"This is a win-win situation — no one stands to loose because of this agreement," he said. "The entire world community has won.
Obama has been no fan of nuclear weapons and this is a feather in his cap for winning the treaty. Not only can this result in further cost savings for both the US and Russians, although the Russians are ever more reliant on their nuclear stockpile to offset a clear US technological advantage in conventional weapons, but it means that the dismantled weapons can provide another source of uranium for civilian nuclear power plants once the weapons grade uranium is processed into LEU. The treaty still needs to be confirmed by the US Senate, but I expect that to happen.

Meanwhile, a series of initiatives that began with the Bush Administration continues to bear fruit. The US has been working with various nations to shut down high enriched uranium reactors and convert it into a low-enriched uranium. The latest such country is Chile, which transported a shipment to the US for reprocessing:
Even as aftershocks from last month's magnitude 8.8 earthquake shook their equipment, U.S. and Chilean engineers worked together to carefully extract Chile's last HEU. It was no simple operation — the radioactive material was carefully loaded into specially designed casks and then lowered into two huge shipping containers for the ocean voyage. All told, 60 tons of metal were needed to keep just 18 kilograms (40 pounds) of HEU from leaking radioactivity.

After two and a half weeks at sea, including passage through the Panama Canal, a specially outfitted double-hulled ship arrived under U.S. Coast Guard escort at the Charleston Weapons Station in South Carolina last month.

Customs agents and nuclear inspectors made radiation checks as the containers were loaded onto flatbed trucks and then driven to the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where much of it will be converted to safer fuel and resold for nuclear power.

A year ago, Obama made a promise to lead a global effort to recover all of this material within four years — ambitious because it not only requires years of planning and diplomacy, but also highly specific technology and expertise.

No other country but the U.S. has put all these elements together — even Russia depends on U.S. help to safely dispose of uranium.

The U.S. has already helped convert or verified the shutdown of 67 reactors in 32 countries from HEU to low-enriched uranium, or LEU, which is much harder to weaponize. It also has secured HEU supplies in more than 750 vulnerable buildings and removed 2,691 kilograms of weapons-grade nuclear material for safer storage.

To help keep his promise, Obama has proposed a 68 percent increase in the Global Threat Reduction Initiative's budget to $559 million for fiscal year 2011, not only to recover more HEU but also to prevent smuggling of nuclear material by strengthening export and border controls and port security.

Next year's $2.7 billion budget for nuclear nonproliferation work begins to do this for plutonium as well, committing $300 million for a plant at Savannah River to convert 34,000 kilograms of plutonium recovered from warheads to fuel for nuclear power.
The program is operated through the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is part of the Department of Energy. It's important to note that the US is actually assisting the Russians in dismantling their nuclear inventory:
# Monitored downblending of over 352 MT of former Soviet weapons-origin HEU (enough for more than 14,000 nuclear weapons) for use in U.S. power plants, providing 10% of U.S. electricity.
# Downblended over 108 MT (enough for approximately 2,376 nuclear weapons) of surplus U.S. HEU into LEU for use as nuclear reactor fuel, with an additional 12 MT packaged and shipped for downblending (total of over 120 MT). Downblended over 11 MT of Russian civilian HEU to LEU.
# Downblending an additional 17.4 MT of HEU for the Reliable Fuel Supply initiative.
# Working to dispose of at least 68 MT of U.S. and Russian weapons-grade plutonium by converting it into mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel for commercial nuclear power reactors. Continuing construction of the U.S. MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility.
# Ended 43 years of weapons-grade plutonium production in Seversk by shutting down two reactors. Completed 53% of the Zheleznogorsk fossil fuel plant to replace the last reactor, to end all weapons-grade plutonium production in Russia.
# Monitoring safe storage of over 9 MT of Russian weapons-grade plutonium (nearly 1,125 warheads) to ensure its non-military use.

All this is on the heels of the consummation os a 2008 deal with India for that country to reprocess US nuclear materials for its own civilian nuclear program.

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