Downblend Diplomacy, Part 1

Posted: July 22, 2013 - 3:25pm | Y-12 Report | Volume 10, Issue 1 | 2013

The iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral stands on Red Square in Moscow.

One of Y‑12’s transparency monitors* has logged enough airlines miles to and from Russia to have traveled to the moon. Sometimes, she thought she had.

“The early days felt very surreal, very fascinating — sort of like standing on the moon,” the monitor said of her first few trips to Russia in the late 1990s. “You’re aware that you’ve watched all those films of the Russians parading missiles through Red Square, and then you’re there.”

She is also aware that she travels to Russia now precisely because of those missiles.

She has been there regularly over the past 15 years as part of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Highly Enriched Uranium Transparency Program, which was established in 1993 to oversee the downblending of Russian highly enriched uranium as part of the U.S.–Russia Highly Enriched Uranium Purchase Agreement. Under that agreement, Russia has agreed to downblend 500 metric tons of highly enriched uranium extracted from former weapons. The U.S. purchases the resultant low-enriched uranium for use in nuclear power reactors.

To confirm the material enters the process as weapons-grade uranium and exits as reactor fuel–grade low-enriched uranium, the U.S. sends a team of trained monitors on 24 special monitoring visits a year to the four Russian facilities that process highly enriched uranium under the agreement.

The visits are governed by the Purchase Agreement and its annexes, which outline specific points and activities the monitors are allowed to observe inside the Russian nuclear facilities. They aim to answer one fundamental question: Is this material really coming from a nuclear weapon?

Since the monitors never see actual weapons, they must rely on their own expertise and knowledge of uranium processing operations. In addition, the United States’ roughly 80 transparency monitors are carefully chosen based on their expertise and must undergo rigorous training developed and conducted by Y‑12.

“We know the process, the chemistry, so there are certain things we expect to see,” explained the monitor. “We collect data to verify.” The data are obtained largely through nondestructive assay measurements, with monitors holding detection equipment up to containers in certain areas of the facilities.

“We’re looking for anything that’s changed since our last visit or anything that doesn’t coincide with what we’d expect based on our experience,” the monitor said. “Anybody could go out there and copy down numbers. We’re chosen because we understand and can analyze the numbers.”


While the monitoring visits run smoothly now, as the program nears the end of its 20-year run, that wasn’t always the case.

In the early days, for instance, the monitors were looked at with suspicion, and there was a security detail on them at all times.

In this spirit, the Russians saw no reason to make things easy for the American monitors. On top of personal observations, the monitors rely heavily on process data the Russians provide for review. “The original monitoring agreement said, ‘You can copy the data,’ but it didn’t say, ‘You can use a photocopier,’” the monitor said. “So for years we’d spend a whole day just hand
copying the Russian data.”

The monitors also were barred from bringing anything into the facilities other than blank sheets of paper — not even paper with pre-drawn tables or inventory templates. So they would sit in the monitor rooms and use straight-edge rulers to hand draw their own forms.

*For operations security reasons, the names of the transparency monitors are withheld.