Russia has been supplying highly enriched uranium to fuel US nuclear power plants

Russia sends last uranium to US as deal comes to end

The last shipment of highly enriched uranium from Russia’s nuclear weapons has been dispatched from St Petersburg to the US as a 20-year uranium purchase agreement expires.

Over the past 20 years highly enriched uranium from Russia turned into low-enriched uranium for power plants has been responsible for about 50 per cent of all commercial nuclear power produced in the US, accounting for about 10 per cent of all US electricity.

The 1993 Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) deal was designed on one hand to prevent Russia’s nuclear material from falling into the wrong hands, while on the other hand providing the US nuclear plants with affordable fuel.  

"For two decades, one in 10 lightbulbs in America has been powered by nuclear material from Russian nuclear warheads," Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said of the agreement, commonly known as Megatons for Megawatts.

The deal was put together in the early 1990s, when Russia, recovering after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was seeking international financial help.

It provided cash and jobs in Russia's nuclear industry at the time, after the 1991 Soviet collapse, when fears ran high that impoverished scientists could try to offset the lack of monetary resources by selling know-how or dirty bomb ingredients.

According to Mathew Bunn, a Harvard University professor and expert on nuclear security, the deal represented "perhaps the most successful US-Russian cooperative effort to reduce nuclear dangers".

Despite the US having sought to prolong the agreement, Russia has refused a new deal, supposedly wanting to grow its nuclear industry.

"It is too bad ... that Russia has not decided to blend down substantial additional quantities of highly enriched uranium," Bunn said. "They still have far more than is plausibly needed for their military programmes."

Some 500 metric tonnes of highly enriched uranium have been sent to the US over the 20 years of the duration of the agreement. However, it is believed Russia still has about the same amount of HEU available, enough to make thousands of warheads.

Despite the New START treaty, signed between the US and the Russian Federation in Prague in 2010, which binds both countries to reduce its nuclear weaponry and prevent further proliferation of nuclear weapons, Russia and the US still own about 95 per cent of the world’s nuclear missiles.

With uranium prices dropping after the 2011 accident at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi atomic power plant, Russia has "no need" now to blend down more highly enriched uranium for fuel, said Sergei Novikov, spokesman for state nuclear corporation Rosatom.

Rosatom's mining arm said on Wednesday that it would freeze expansion projects due to low prices.

But Novikov suggested the lack of desire to take steps without US reciprocation was also a factor, saying Russia was the only country to have blended down 500 metric tonnes of HEU. "Why should we do even more?" he added.

Moniz said Russia's total revenue under the programme was about $17bn (£11bn). He said the US had blended down more than 140 tonnes of its own HEU and had made a commitment to bringing that to more than 180 tonnes.

The end of the agreement will also affect the uranium market in the US, where under deals negotiated to end a trade complaint, Russia will now only be able to supply about a quarter of the market.

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