1 April 2013
In February 1993 a US –Russian intergovernmental agreement concerning disposition of highly enriched uranium ( HEU ) extracted from nuclear weapons was signed. In accordance with its provisions a blending down of 500 tons of Russian HEU ( equivalent to the “ filling “ of 20 thousand nuclear warheads ) is being carried out during a period of 20 years for further use of low enriched uranium (LEU ) in 104 American nuclear power reactors . Hence appeared another , informal name of the Agreement – “Megatons into Megawatts”. In January 1994 an executive contract was signed between the two authorized governmental agents ( Techsnabexport and US Enrichment Corporation ) and in 1995 the first 186 tons of LEU were delivered to the USA. The anticipated aggregate value of the deal was priced $ 12 billion at that time.
For the first time the idea of excess weapon-grade HEU blending down into LEU and its further use as nuclear power plants fuel was put forward in October 1991 by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology collaborator T.Neff in an article “ The great uranium deal “ published by the New York Times. The idea appeared to be timely in the context of the Russian-American START -1 Treaty signed in July 1991 which provided for the reduction by each side of about 5 thousand nuclear warheads. Taking into account a tense economic situation in Russia at that time Moscow took the proposal with interest since it offered an opportunity of getting multibillion hard currency commercial revenue which could be partially channeled to supporting the underfunded nuclear industry.
One has to note a fundamental distinction between the HEU-LEU agreement and the 1993 bilateral framework Cooperative Threat Reduction agreement( so called Nunn –Lugar program) in which the USA is a donor and Russia a recipient of an American voluntary assistance in fulfilling its START -1 obligations while the first document is in fact a mutually beneficial commercial deal.
At the first stage of cooperation Russian experts developed a unique HEU blending down technology at the Russian plants which would correspond to the US standards for nuclear fuel.
By year 2000 four Rosatom plants in the Urals and Siberia were involved in the process of producing yearly about 900 tons of LEU , which was delivered from St.Petersburg to the US East Coast by sea. The importance of the deal to the USA is characterized by the fact that during almost 20 years HEU-LEU cooperation provides about the half of the country’s need in nuclear fuel and allows for the production of 10 % of the overall national electricity consumption..
The is no doubt that the Agreement is also beneficial to Russia. The yearly earnings of the order of $700 mil. serve as a budget source for complementary financing of Rosatom programs in enhancing Russia’s nuclear power plants security , defense enterprises conversion and ecological rehabilitation of radiologically polluted territories.
At the initial stage of the HEU-LEU agreement implementation some critical voices were heard in the sense that the real cost of HEU was underestimated by at least ten times. Moreover allegations were put forward that the agreement was fraught with jeopardizing the national security due to the reduction of the strategic material reserves. Non the less the preponderant current view of the Russian expert community is that such appraisals do not correspond to the reality.
First of all , the aggregate value of the deal was determined on the basis of the LEU and not HEU market prices ( non-existent for evident reasons ) at that period of time , that is taking into account the weight average price of the material with the possibility of its coordinated correction in the future.
And secondly , putting for sale 500 tons of HEU would barely diminish the defense potential of Russia since even after the termination of the agreement the country would still be in a possession of about 700 tons of HEU ( there are no official figures to this effect but according to the independent western experts USSR has produced over 1200 tons of HEU ).
Moreover, one has to keep in mind that since 1996 the USA has voluntarily blended down 120 tons of excess weapon- grade uranium ( the overall volume of this material produced in the country is supposedly of the order of 700 tons ) for use in nuclear energy.
Summing up one has to recognize that the US-Russian HEU-LEU agreement showed itself as an effective instrument of the irreversible nuclear disarmament process. On the other hand it became a kind of a platform for demonstrating the possibilities of using win –win commercial approaches in implementing disarmament initiatives.