The U.S. Department of Energy and Norway’s Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Fisheries have signed a memorandum of understanding to advance a project aimed at eliminating Norway’s high-enriched uranium by downblending it to low-enriched uranium. If the project is successfully completed, Norway will become the 34th country (plus Taiwan) to be considered HEU-free.
In the downblending process, HEU is mixed with depleted or natural uranium to reduce the U-235 concentration to below 20 percent, resulting in LEU, which cannot be used to make an improvised nuclear device (aka “dirty bomb”). According to the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration, the challenge with Norway’s HEU has been that much of it is mixed with thorium, making the use of other disposition techniques more problematic.
A closer look: Signed on September 1 by U.S. energy secretary Jennifer Granholm and her Norwegian counterpart, Iselin Nybø, minister of trade and industry, the MOU calls for small-scale downblending activities to begin in 2022 using Norway’s existing infrastructure. It also paves the way for the eventual deployment of the DOE’s Mobile Melt-Consolidate system to complete the work.
According to the NNSA, “The Mobile Melt-Consolidate system is a flexible tool that can treat a wide variety of HEU-bearing materials safely and reliably, including those that are challenging to dispose of by more traditional means. . . . The system will enable the treatment of HEU at partner facilities, eliminating the most vulnerable stage in the nuclear materials’ life cycle—transit—and reducing the amount of material that is returned to the United States.”
Testimonials: “This project is the latest example of the brilliant work of the Department of Energy’s engineers, scientists, and technical experts come to life,” Granholm said. “Together with our Norwegian friends and partners, we have taken a major challenge and come up with a creative, innovative solution that will make the world a safer place.”
Nybø said that the MOU “lays an important foundation for Norway to get rid of its nuclear weapons-usable material” and expressed her hope that the technology can also be used by other countries.