Fact Sheets

Preventing the Proliferation of Nuclear Materials

This fact sheet details the efforts of the international community to prevent the proliferation of nuclear materials and components that could possibly be used to construct weaponry. Topics covered include the International Nonproliferation Treaty, Megatons to Megawatts and the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.


January 2014

Key Facts

· 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. It poses no risk of proliferation, because 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 U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

· Signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) pledge to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, work toward disarmament and promote the commercial uses of nuclear energy. The NPT established a system of safeguards under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

· The Obama administration’s nonproliferation policy aligns with the NPT: “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 and their byproducts. The industry does so through the entire fuel cycle—from the mining of uranium to the safe and secure storage of used nuclear fuel. Controls include global monitoring by international inspectors and stringent national inspection programs.

The 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 production. This process creates the fuel used in commercial nuclear reactors, low- enriched uranium. LEU is considered to be uranium enriched to less than 20 percent U-235. Uranium used in commercial nuclear reactors contains less than 5 percent U-235. It is impossible to create a nuclear weapon from LEU with the concentration of U-235 so low.

Commercial reactors, once in operation, create plutonium as a byproduct of electricity generation. Extracting the plutonium in used fuel rods entails complex chemical reprocessing and requires highly sophisticated equipment. The U.S. nuclear industry does not reprocess used fuel, although a few other nations do.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is an international agreement 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 countries 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.

For more on the IAEA’s safeguards work, see www.iaea.org/OurWork/SV/Safeguards/.

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 forego 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 U.S. Assured Fuel Supply

In August 2011, the U.S. Department of Energy established an independent reserve supply of LEU, the Assured Fuel Supply, available to both domestic and international reactor facilities in case of commercial supply disruptions. This reserve supply of LEU was created from U.S. surplus weapons-grade HEU.

Other Programs and Initiatives

The National Nuclear Security Administration

NNSA is a semi-autonomous agency within the 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 establishes guidelines for international nuclear trade. In 2011, the NSG voted to adopt 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. The program, which concluded in December 2013, recycled 500 metric tons of highly enriched Russian uranium—the equivalent of 20,000 nuclear warheads—into low-enriched uranium, 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 set of principles that reflect global best practices in nuclear reactor exports. The principles articulate the nuclear energy industry’s shared high standards in safety, security, environmental protection, 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.