US and UK swap high-enriched uranium to support cancer treatment

31 March 2016

Some 700 kg of British high-enriched uranium (HEU) will be transported to America in return for a form of the fuel that can be used in research reactors that create isotopes for life-saving diagnosis and treatment.

The move will be announced by UK prime minister David Cameron today at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC.

In return for the UK materials, the USA will send a quantity of its own HEU to Euratom in a form suitable for manufacturing into fuel and targets for use at a European research reactor that produces medical isotopes. The manufacturing will take place in France.

The UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) said: "The swap will deliver real societal benefits - both in the UK and across Europe."

Mainstream nuclear power reactors run on low-enriched uranium in an entirely civilian fuel cycle, whereas high enriched uranium has been created by governments of countries such as the US and UK for use in small research reactors and fast reactors as well as military submarines and weapons.

In 2013, the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) published papers on the options it was considering to manage the approximately 1000 kg of HEU stored at Dounreay, along with other experimental nuclear fuels collectively termed 'exotics'. "None of the exotics held at Dounreay are considered to be waste," it stated, explaining the HEU was in various forms - oxide powders, pellets and metal - and at various levels of enrichment. The HEU is unirradiated, which means it has a relatively low level of radioactivity.

At that time, the option to "Send material overseas for reprocessing and utilise products" was seen as low probability but useful to maintain as a contingency because there were no specialised facilities to store HEU at Sellafield, where the NDA would have preferred to consolidate similar materials. Removing the fuels from Dounreay is a step towards lowering the site's security classification and cost savings.

DECC said, "This movement is the largest ever consolidation of such material and represents a significant milestone in achieving our goals of consolidating all our holdings in one secure location, while reducing our overall nuclear material stocks"

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News