It looks like we are back to the discussion of the merits of the Megatons to Megawatts program (aka HEU-LEU agreement). A quite confused article in the New York Times, which threw together START, HEU, missiles, and a lot of other things, quoted U.S. officials as saying that the United States and Russia are discussing a so-called HEU-2 deal, which would presumably extend the current down-blending effort beyond 2013, when the current program is supposed to complete down-blending the initial 500 tonnes of HEU.
I sure hope that they aren't.
From the security point of view, the deal make absolutely no sense, to put it very mildly. I wrote about it in a Bulletin column about a year ago - the program is constantly creating unnecessary additional risks by hauling about 30 tonnes of HEU annually across Russia several times in many shipments. The chart below (adapted from an IPFM report) shows the current HEU flows:
I simply don't see how it could be that shipping tens of tonnes of HEU metal, oxide or UF6 between all these places is a contribution to security of that HEU. Especially if we take into account that the program does nothing to eliminate whatever security problems may exist where the material is coming from - at warhead storage sites or at centralized fissile material storage facilities.
As I wrote a year ago, the program played an important and useful role in the past. But the only danger that this program is reducing now is that of Russia's making new nuclear warheads out of that HEU. I am all for elimination of warheads and weapon-usable materials, but I would hope that we could find a way of doing so that would be less insane than shipping those materials back and forth.
I still believe that a much better way of dealing with the materials would be to keep them in secure storage for the moment - warheads in the custody of the 12th Directorate, and materials - in centralized storage, at Mayak or elsewhere. The material there is much more easier to secure and account for than that same material hauled to across the country in bulk form. At some point the material would have to be eliminated, of course, but I don't see why this cannot wait until Mayak has all the required facilities.
Luckily, the down-blending deal does not make any sense for Russia from the commercial point of view. Rosatom doesn't like it anymore (it's not getting the money directly as it used to in the early days of the program), so it has been resisting the attempts to extend the deal for some time now. I hope Rosatom will be able to fight off new attempts as well.
As for the new U.S. administration, if it believes it has some political capital to spend with Rosatom, I would certainly hope it would not waste it promoting a program that makes all of us less secure.