Preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, their components and the technology to produce nuclear materials is a global imperative that requires the participation and cooperation of industry and nations.
Low-enriched uranium (LEU) is used as fuel in commercial nuclear energy facilities and poses no risk of proliferation. It cannot be used to make nuclear weapons.
High-enriched uranium (HEU), which is not used in commercial nuclear reactors, can be used to make nuclear weapons. HEU is used in some research reactors.
Used nuclear fuel from commercial reactors, which contains plutonium generated as a byproduct of the commercial fuel cycle, poses little risk of proliferation.
All nuclear material, including fresh and used nuclear fuel, is strictly managed and accounted for at U.S. nuclear energy facilities as regulated by the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty pledge to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, work toward disarmament and promote the commercial uses of nuclear energy. The treaty established a system of safeguards under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The Obama administration’s nonproliferation policy aligns with the treaty: “a world without nuclear weapons” where nations have a right to pursue commercial nuclear energy under IAEA supervision.
Securing Nuclear Materials
To combat the threat of proliferation, the international nuclear energy community has adopted robust controls to ensure that it can secure and fully account for nuclear materials manufactured for the production of electricity, along with their byproducts. The industry does so through the entire fuel cycle—from the mining of uranium to the safe and secure disposal of used nuclear fuel in a long-term repository. Controls include global monitoring by international inspectors and stringent national inspection programs.
Principal materials of concern in the nuclear weapons production cycle include high-enriched uranium and plutonium.
Before its use in reactors, mined uranium must be enriched to concentrate the uranium-235 isotope necessary for power generation. This process creates the fuel used in commercial nuclear reactors, low- enriched uranium. Uranium used in commercial nuclear reactors contains less than 5 percent U-235. LEU is considered to be uranium enriched to less than 20 percent U-235. It is impossible to create a nuclear weapon from LEU as the concentration of U-235 is too low.
Commercial reactors, once in operation, create plutonium as a byproduct of electricity generation. The extraction of plutonium contained in used fuel rods entails complex chemical reprocessing, requiring highly sophisticated equipment. The U.S. nuclear industry does not currently reprocess used fuel, although a small number of other nations do.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is an international treaty aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and promoting cooperation in the commercial uses of nuclear energy and disarmament.
Created in 1968 and signed by 189 nations, it permits ownership of nuclear weapons only by the five countries that possessed them at the treaty’s inception: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. These five states pledged not to transfer nuclear weapons technology to other states and to reduce their weapons stockpiles.
IAEA inspectors work to ensure that commercial nuclear materials and technologies are not used for military purposes. Acting under the treaty, the IAEA regularly inspects more than 350 civilian nuclear facilities. Under the Additional Protocol, adopted by the IAEA in 1997, the agency was granted expanded rights of access to information and sites.
Learn more about the IAEA’s safeguards work.
Nuclear Fuel Supply Banks
Strictly monitored nuclear fuel banks enhance nonproliferation goals by ensuring a supply of enriched uranium if a disruption in the supply chain occurs. The fuel banks are designed to persuade other nations to forgo development of uranium enrichment or reprocessing technology, which could be used to make weapons-grade material.
The IAEA board of governors has approved the creation of two separate fuel banks. The first was established in March 2010 between the IAEA and the Russian government. The second fuel bank was approved in December 2010 and will be owned and operated by the IAEA. Both LEU reserves were established to protect member states from possible supply disruptions unrelated to technical or commercial considerations.
The US Assured Fuel Supply
In 2011, the Department of Energy established an independent, reserve supply of LEU, the Assured Fuel Supply, available to both domestic and international nuclear energy facilities in case of commercial supply disruptions. This reserve supply of LEU was created from the downblending of U.S. surplus weapons-grade HEU.
Other Programs and Initiatives
Other programs and initiatives also contribute to nonproliferation objectives, including:
The National Nuclear Security Administration
NNSA is a semi-autonomous agency within the U.S. Department of Energy that is responsible for detecting, preventing and reversing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The Global Threat Reduction Initiative is an NNSA program that seeks to reduce and secure nuclear and radiological materials located at civilian sites worldwide.
Nuclear Suppliers Group
The 46-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) establishes guidelines for international nuclear trade. In
2011, the NSG adopted guidelines that set clear and specific criteria for the transfer of equipment and technology used in uranium enrichment and used nuclear fuel reprocessing.
Megatons to Megawatts
The Megatons to Megawatts program is a 20-year, $8 billion government/industry partnership that is recycling weapons-grade uranium from dismantled Russian nuclear warheads into fuel for U.S. nuclear energy facilities.
As of May 2013, the program had recycled 475 metric tons of bomb-grade Russian HEU into 13,723 metric tons of LEU, the equivalent of eliminating 19,008 nuclear warheads. By the end of 2013, when the program expires, it will have downblended 500 metric tons of Russian highly enriched uranium—the equivalent of 20,000 warheads—and enough fuel to power the entire United States for about two years.
Nuclear Power Plant Exporters' Principles of Conduct
In 2011, the world’s civilian nuclear reactor vendors adopted a common set of principles that reflect global best practices in nuclear reactor exports.
The principles articulate the nuclear energy industry’s shared high standards in the areas of safety, security, environmental protection and used fuel management, compensation in the unlikely event of nuclear energy-related damage, nuclear nonproliferation, and ethics.
For more information about the principles of conduct, see www.nuclearprinciples.org.