According to a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), government agencies have sound procedures for managing nuclear material exchanges but an improvement in inventory monitoring is needed.
The GAO report found that from Oct. 1, 2003 to Nov. 30, 2015, there were a total of 817 exchanges of nuclear material that carried obligations to foreign partners under nuclear cooperation agreements. Those exchanges allowed nuclear material obligations to be transferred between one facility that had a certain amount of obligated nuclear material and another facility that had at least the same amount and type of unobligated material without physically moving it.
Of the 817 total exchanges, 802 of them were conducted by Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)-licensed facilities and private companies involved in commercially producing nuclear energy.
NRC said its licensees conducted exchanges to meet their utility customer demand and to avoid high costs and safety risks associated with physically transporting nuclear materials.
Although the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and NRC ensure safe tracking and transport of nuclear materials through the Nuclear Materials Management and Safeguards System (NMMSS), the GAO tested elements of those procedures and identified two issues that may impact the agencies’ ability to monitor nuclear material inventories effectively. First, some facilities have carried negative obligation balances for extended periods, which may place the United States at risk of noncompliance with nuclear agreements. Second, the U.S. inventory of its unobligated low-enriched uranium (LEU) is declining and NMMSS does not have an early-warning monitoring capability to alert the DOE when the inventory is low, which could put the U.S. at risk of having a shortfall of supplies available to correct negative obligation balances.
The GAO report recommended that the DOE and NRC clarify the guidance when facilities may carry negative obligation balances and develop an early-warning monitoring capability in NMMSS to alert the DOE when the inventory of unobligated LEU is particularly low.