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Liquidating the Cold War: Progress of the HEU Deal

By Thomas L. Neff

NeffApproximately 60 years ago, the world began a technological revolution that would transform the nature of war, alter the relationships between nations, and ultimately restructure the economies and governance of the US, Russia and other nations. The invention and deployment of nuclear weapons by the US and the Soviet Union led to a different, bipolar world in which regional struggles were often merely proxies for the main adversaries in the Cold War, where nuclear weapons arsenals were the measure of greatness, and where domestic economies and decision-making were often dominated by Cold War considerations. This was also a new world in which scientists, particularly physicists, actually seemed important to government and to the public.

Both the Soviet and US governments and societies were reshaped by the imperatives of the Cold War. Ministries and departments with Cold War roles were ascendant. Close to the centers of power, advisors with Cold War portfolios (some of them physicists) commanded a level of attention they may never have again. Unfortunately, institutional rigidities and Cold War conditioning remain serious obstacles to liquidating the Cold War, potentially resulting in dangers greater than those faced previously.

It seems at this point that we do not need more fathers of the H-bomb or modern equivalents, but rather morticians of the Cold War. The fundamental challenge is to find ways to restructure and redirect both the US and Russia along lines that simultaneously liquidate the dangers of the Cold War and create practical ways to use the valuable talents of scientists and engineers. The Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) Deal is but the first of many possible initiatives.

The HEU Deal

In September 1991, Presidents Bush and Gorbachev reached agreement on reduced deployments of nuclear weapons, setting the stage for the first major reduction in numbers of nuclear weapons. At the same time, it became clear that the Soviet Union was disintegrating. I soon began to worry about what would happen to surplus nuclear weapons, fissile materials, and to the weapons capabilities, including a large number of highly trained people. It was immediately apparent that a potential outcome was that the weapons and personnel could be transformed in short order from a well-controlled force to a major weapons proliferation threat to the world.

The basic problem was to find a way to motivate and finance post-Soviet control of nuclear weapons, fissile material and personnel in a country where central authorities might not have the power to do so. It occurred to me that the highly enriched uranium in surplus weapons has a high value when blended down to enrichment levels usable in civil power reactors. The destruction of weapons could be a self-financing process, without cost to the US taxpayer.

Ideally, much of the money should flow to the Russian enterprises and secret cities that had produced the weapons, as they would be essential to reversing the process. If the material in each nuclear weapon had commercial value on the order of a half million dollars, not only would it be watched carefully, but the destruction of it and the uranium fissile material would be expedited. The highly capable scientists and engineers would continue to be supported, reducing the likelihood that they would be forced to sell their talents to other national or subnational groups. Once begun, the enterprises involved in the destruction of weapons and the blending of HEU to civil fuel would demand weapons and weapons material to destroy. Weapons destruction would not be driven by Russian compliance with treaty requirements, but by powerful self-interested forces within Russia. Politically, these large enterprises would enlist regional support in the fragmented post-Soviet system, ultimately helping to shift national policy away from new military spending.

On February 18, 1993, the US and Russia signed a bilateral agreement for the US to undertake the purchase of 500 metric tons of HEU, the quantity contained in roughly 20,000 nuclear weapons. Russia and the US were to appoint commercial executive agents to carry out the deal. Russia chose Techsnabexport (Tenex), essentially a government export agency, and the US chose the enrichment arm of the Department of Energy, which is now a government corporation called the US Enrichment Corporation (USEC) on its way to privatization. By May of 1993, the DOE and Tenex officials had initiated a draft contract for the purchase of 500 tons of HEU over 20 years, with an expected value of $12 billion. Used for making fuel, a kilogram of HEU is worth about $24,000, twice the value of gold. The final contract was signed in January 1994.

Problems and Progress

While these developments appeared to be a major victory for arms reduction and non-proliferation, it turned out to be only the beginning of a very difficult process of implementation. For example, at least some Russian HEU contains small amounts of plutonium, most likely the result of hybrid weapons designs in which HEU came into metallic contact with plutonium. To meet commercial specifications, it has been necessary to purify the HEU by reprocessing.

Also, to alleviate concerns that Russia might simply enrich natural uranium to make HEU, rather than destroying weapons, the US has insisted on monitoring the destruction and blend down of HEU. Russia has understandably been sensitive about this issue. The solution was achieved in December 1996: US monitors are placing measurement devices at key points in the HEU destruction facilities, and Russia has a reciprocal right to monitor the use of LEU from HEU in the US to make sure it is not being used to produce new weapons material.

In addition, there have been trade-related problems. In November 1991, an antidumping action was brought against the Soviet Union for selling nuclear fuel products at too low a price. The antidumping action would have prevented the import into the US of fuel products made from Russian HEU, as well as conventional nuclear fuel products from successor states. It was thus necessary to negotiate a settlement. Finally, even though the USEC was a government corporation, there was little independent or effective oversight of control by US policy makers. This set the stage for possible conflicts between the commercial objectives of the new corporation and the national security objectives of the US government.

These difficulties initially led to some delay in the original schedule for desctruction of HEU. However, their resolution and beginning of cash flow to Russia is rapidly eliminating bottlenecks. As of today, reactor fuel equivalent to 21 tons of HEU has been delivered to the US, the equivalent of about 1,000 nuclear weapons. By the end of the five-year contract, a total of 150 tons of HEU, equivalent to about 6,000 nuclear weapons, will have been destroyed. Capacity limits on purification and blending are the only factors impeding more rapid destruction of the fissile material.

In 1997, Russia received about $450 million for the destruction of nuclear weapons, which will increase to more than $750 million per year by 1999. While the monies not spent on actual weapons destruction will ostensibly be used for improvements in reactor safety and other purposes, there is a potential danger that some of these funds will be used to enhance weapons design and production capabilities. However, the HEU deal was not primarily intended as a disarmament program, but rather as a non-proliferation action that Russia and the US could agree on. Moreover, the US is hardly stopping its design activities, nor destroying its ability to produce nuclear weapons. There is thus still an important role to be played by traditional arms negotiations. The agreement to ban testing of nuclear weapons is an important first step. With some luck, the HEU deal will foster a better climate for arms agreements.


In hindsight, the HEU deal appears to be an obvious idea. In reality, a new idea is much like a child: conceiving one is nowhere near as hard or time-consuming as raising one. With a lot of work, the HEU deal has survived its childhood. Unfortunately, it may be entering adolescence, where outside influences may lead it astray. The large amounts of money involved are likely to tempt opportunists. The deal has already been challenged in Russia by conservative nationalists, and some in the Russian government have been tempted to defend the HEU by saying that it is financing the weapons program. In the US, the privatization of USEC continues to raise the larger question about the relationships between domestic economic matters and international security imperatives.

In the case of plutonium, some new ideas are needed. For several years I have been quietly trying to encourage a relatively brief delay in civil reprocessing that would free up existing capacity in Europe to fabricate mixed uranium and plutonium fuel (MOX) from weapons plutonium. While the reprocessing industry has previously opposed such actions, their customers in Europe and Asia would welcome a slowdown in civil reprocessing and corresponding delay in return of nuclear waste. If the MOX industry can be convinced to take this course, the real challenge will be to convince the US and Russian governments to let their weapons plutonium be fabricated in Europe and potentially burned elsewhere.

In all of this, we need better agreements with Russia, as well as with other nations. As Leo Szilard wrote, the "problem is not to write an agreement that Russia will sign, but to write one which Russia will be eager to keep, not only for the next few years but ten years and twenty years hence." Impatient with traditional diplomacy, Szilard went on to argue that "to devise such an agreement requires imagination and resourcefulness," qualities he obviously found wanting in government.

I do not agree with Szilard on this point - there are many creative people in government - but do share the impatience. It seems better to make small timely efforts to direct the course of events than to respond more heavily to the crisis of events gone badly astray. The entropy of multiple actors and agendas in government may require the injection of large amounts of political energy to get anything done. The broader challenge is to build on the success of the HEU deal to redirect both political systems and technological capabilities toward more peaceful and more economically productive ends.

Thomas Neff is at the Center for International Studies of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and was the recipient of the 1997 Leo Szilard Award. This article was adapted from his lecture at the 1997 APS/AAPT Joint Spring Meeting. A longer version appeared in the January 1998 issue the newsletter of the APS Forum on Physics and Society.

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