Nuclear Nonproliferation:

DOE Needs to Consider Options to Accelerate the Return of Weapons-Usable Uranium from Other Countries to the United States and Russia

GAO-05-57: Published: Nov 19, 2004. Publicly Released: Nov 19, 2004.

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Many foreign nuclear research reactors use highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel. Because HEU can be used in nuclear weapons, the Department of Energy (DOE) has two programs to return HEU from foreign reactors to either the United States or Russia. The U.S. fuel acceptance program includes HEU exported by the United States to 34 countries, 11 of which have returned all of their HEU. The program also includes low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel, which would be very difficult to use in a nuclear weapon. DOE imposes a fee on high-income countries to partially offset the cost of disposing of HEU and LEU fuel in the United States. Under the Russian fuel return program, DOE assists in the return of Russian-origin HEU from 14 countries to Russia. GAO was asked to examine (1) the status of DOE efforts to recover remaining inventories of U.S.-origin HEU and the extent to which the fees imposed on high-income countries support these efforts, and (2) the cost and time frame for completing the Russian fuel return program.

For a number of reasons, including the cost of converting reactors from HEU to LEU fuel, DOE has not reached agreement with reactor operators in 11 of the 23 countries that still have U.S.-origin HEU to return all of the HEU to the United States. In contrast, reactor operators in 12 of the countries either have signed contracts with DOE to return all of their U.S.-origin HEU or are developing their own means of disposal. DOE is considering offering incentives to foreign research reactors to return their HEU to the United States but so far has not determined what incentives it will offer and to which countries. DOE has not revised the fees imposed on high-income countries since establishing the fuel acceptance program in 1996. However, DOE reserved the right to change the fees in response to changes in circumstances. While lowering the fees for returning HEU may encourage additional reactors to participate in the program, DOE could recover a greater portion of the disposal costs by raising the fees for accepting LEU. DOE plans to complete the Russian fuel return program by 2009 and estimates the program could cost about $100 million, but this estimate and time frame may not be reliable because of uncertainties associated with planning future shipments. The shipments to date have all consisted of fresh (unused) HEU fuel, which DOE considers the highest priority for returning to Russia because it is more vulnerable to theft. DOE is facing delays in returning spent HEU fuel, which has been used in a reactor, in part because Russia is planning to conduct an environmental assessment for each shipment. DOE has asked Russia to conduct a single environmental assessment for the spent HEU fuel in all of the countries participating in the program to expedite future shipments of spent fuel, but so far Russia has not agreed to this. DOE is considering ways to accelerate the program that could also increase the cost of the program by more than $30 million.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration should consider offering incentives to foreign research reactors to return HEU to the United States, including lowering the fees that DOE charges for accepting HEU fuel from high-income countries.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In written comments submitted to GAO concerning this report, DOE/NNSA agreed with this recommendation and on a case-by-case basis is offering incentives to foreign research reactors to return highly enriched uranium (HEU) research reactor fuel to the United States.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration should consider offering incentives to foreign research reactors to return HEU to the United States, including lowering the fees that DOE charges for accepting HEU fuel from high-income countries.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE and NNSA have begun to offer incentives to foreign research reactors to return highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel to the United States.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration should evaluate raising the fees for accepting LEU fuel from research reactors in high-income countries to recover as much of the cost for disposing of the fuel in the United States as possible, if doing so would not adversely affect the conversion of reactors to LEU and the return of HEU or create unmanageable financial burdens for the reactors.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

    Status: Open

    Comments: 5/27/2009

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration should evaluate raising the fees for accepting LEU fuel from research reactors in high-income countries to recover as much of the cost for disposing of the fuel in the United States as possible, if doing so would not adversely affect the conversion of reactors to LEU and the return of HEU or create unmanageable financial burdens for the reactors.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

    Status: Open

    Comments: 5/27/2009

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