Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Medium

America Needs to Enrich Uranium

| October 28, 2015

With the upcoming implementation of the Iran deal, the continuing challenge from nuclear rogue North Korea, and global competition heating up to supply nuclear facilities to new adopters of nuclear power in Asia, Europe, and Africa, American leadership in nuclear technology is more important than ever to protect our national security and maintain the highest degree of vigilance against the spread of nuclear weapons.

Oddly, however, the Administration has decided to dismantle the Nation’s only domestic advanced centrifuge facility in operation today. The facility, which contains a single cascade of 120 centrifuges built two years ago to demonstrate the technology for national security purposes, represents a vital lifeline to the future of American nuclear leadership.

The machines are now spinning at the American Centrifuge Project at Piketon, in Southern Ohio, the site of one of the three shuttered gaseous diffusion plants that, beginning with the Manhattan Project, enriched all of the highly enriched uranium (HEU) to supply the U.S. nuclear arsenal. That force won the Cold War and still defends America and her allies by deterring their adversaries. These new machines are highly efficient, represent the most advanced enrichment technology in the world, and use just a fraction of the electricity that the retired technology required. While the work is ongoing, a two-year demonstration project has thus far achieved or exceeded all technical milestones and performance indicators on or ahead of schedule and on or under budget.

To be sure, with the commercial market for nuclear fuel at historic lows — the inevitable result of the closure of scores of nuclear plants in Germany and Japan after Fukushima — there is no viable commercial case to build a multi-billion dollar plant based on American or any other technology today, or likely for several years yet to come. The national security case for restoring America’s uranium enrichment capability, however, is urgent and compelling.

First, U.S. leadership in uranium enrichment technology has provided great benefit over the years, including in such behind-the-scenes yet vital efforts as the Nuclear Suppliers Group. There the United States has played a leading role in ensuring that nuclear and dual-use equipment and technology that could help another country build its own enrichment plant are subjected to strict multilateral export controls. As more nations develop their own nuclear energy programs, the need for U.S. leadership is bound to increase, not decrease.

Second, the United States will need a domestic uranium enrichment capability in the future, not only to replenish tritium required in our nuclear arsenal, but also to produce the highly enriched uranium that fuels U.S. force projection globally (through our aircraft carriers) and sustains our submarine force (both our survivable second-strike deterrent and our nuclear-powered attack submarines). Under U.S. law and our international treaty obligations, these national security needs can only be supplied with a home-grown U.S. technology.

Skeptics who scoff that these requirements are many years, even decades away, should consider the following question: is it more cost-effective to destroy our only operating centrifuge cascade, disperse the workforce, forfeit Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses that took years to secure, and start from scratch in a few years — or to sustain a modest continuing investment in that cascade to preserve our strategic capability to resume larger operations when the President needs it? Indeed, an October 2015 report from the Department of Energy shows that shutting down the Piketon plant now, only to have to remobilize it later, will raise the costs for taxpayers by $1.1 billion in the short run and roughly $3–6 billion in the long run.

Fortunately, the Administration does intend to preserve vital laboratory work on gas centrifuges at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where test stands can diagnose and correct problems on individual machines. But any enrichment plant requires cascades of hundreds and ultimately thousands of machines in order to produce either commercial reactor fuel or military-grade HEU. Testing a single centrifuge is to building an enrichment plant what testing a single integrated circuit is to building a computer: necessary but not sufficient.

When it comes to combating the spread of nuclear weapons, and sustaining our own nuclear deterrent, for the benefit of the United States and its treaty allies in Europe and Asia, it would be extremely unwise to accept that kind of a risk.

What is needed now is a common-sense option between an all-out effort to build a multi-billion dollar facility, which will not be needed for many years, and instant elimination of our existing national security cascade, and the workforce and infrastructure that support it. We need to keep this program going, at a prudent, rational level. Perhaps we can even enhance our current efforts by modestly expanding Piketon’s operations to produce low-enriched uranium. This could boost an important U.S. effort to accelerate the transition of foreign research reactors away from highly enriched uranium that can be diverted into a weapons program.

For one hundredth of one percent of our annual defense budget, the United States can stay in the game, maintain global leadership, hedge against a dangerous future, and preserve a capability that has defended Americans for generations, and will be needed for generations to come. Russia, China, France — and Iran — are each investing billions in their enrichment enterprises. Rather than abandoning America’s single cascade of advanced centrifuges, let’s put them to productive use to meet national security needs and advance our non-proliferation agenda around the world.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Poneman, Daniel.“America Needs to Enrich Uranium.” Medium, October 28, 2015.

The Author