Highly enriched uranium (HEU) is one of the most dangerous materials in the world, thanks to the ease with which it can be utilized in a nuclear explosive device. Unlike plutonium, highly enriched uranium is suitable for use in the simplest kind of nuclear weapon, a so-called gun-type bomb. In addition, HEU’s weak radioactivity makes it relatively easy to handle and hard to detect. Terrorists who acquire a sufficient quantity of HEU would not need to be backed by the scientific and financial resources of a state to construct a nuclear device.
Massive amounts of HEU continue to be set aside for nuclear weapons and for powering nuclear vessels such as submarines and aircraft carriers. The primary civilian use of HEU has been in research reactors and other test facilities. It has also been used in the process of producing medical isotopes and in civilian propulsion reactors. A half century ago, the Soviet Union and the United States started shipping HEU abroad as part of their peaceful nuclear cooperation programs, but by the late 1970s, India’s “peaceful nuclear explosion” and the rise of international terrorism had convinced the two superpowers to launch efforts to phase out research reactor use of HEU (particularly overseas) and replace it with LEU. These efforts were accelerated following the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States and have made significant gains.
Fortunately, an international consensus has emerged in recent years that, given the security risks, the use of HEU outside military technologies should be minimized to the extent that it is technically and economically feasible. The 2010 Nuclear Security Summit also endorsed this consensus and several countries took individual steps to minimize or eliminate civil HEU. Nonetheless, the world still lacks a common and comprehensive strategy to minimize and ultimately eliminate this danger. As a result, the United States, France, South Korea and industry leaders have sought to use the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit to accelerate efforts to minimize HEU in the civilian sector.
Miles Pomper (James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies) examines what the status of HEU minimization efforts and offers strategies to continue these efforts.
Miles A. Pomper is a Senior Research Associate in the Washington DC office of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. His work focuses on nuclear energy, nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear security, and nuclear arms control. Before joining CNS he served as Editor-in-Chief of Arms Control Today from 2003-2009. Previously, he was the lead foreign policy reporter for CQ Weekly and Legi-Slate News Service, where he covered the full range of national security issues before Congress, and a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Information Agency. His career has also included the publication of book chapters, analytical articles, and reports for publications, such as Foreign Service Journal, Survival, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, World Politics Review, Nuclear Engineering International, and the Centre for International Governance Innovation. He holds a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.
For other papers in this series, visit our NSS Working Paper Series page.
For more resources on the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit and the NSS process, visit our NSS Program page.