Obstacles to U.S. Ability To Control and Track Weapons-Grade Uranium Supplied Abroad

ID-82-21: Published: Aug 2, 1982. Publicly Released: Aug 2, 1982.

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Joan M. McCabe
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the ability of the United States to control and account for highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium supplied abroad. This report focuses on U.S. administrative controls, physical security reviews, international safeguards and the U.S. ability to keep track of exports of highly enriched uranium. Also addressed were U.S. efforts to develop a non-weapons-grade uranium fuel to be used as a substitute for highly enriched uranium.

The central computer system currently used by the Department of Energy (DOE) to track all U.S. highly enriched uranium exports to foreign countries is incomplete and inaccurate. Although DOE has been working to improve the information in the system, it has not used some readily available internal data. GAO believes that efforts to streamline and consolidate needed information are warranted. The United States attempts to regulate the exports of highly enriched uranium fuels with: (1) agreements for cooperation, (2) export licenses, and (3) subsequent arrangements made with other countries. To minimize the risks of having weapons-grade material accumulate abroad, DOE has the authority to accept returns of spent highly enriched uranium of U.S. origin from other nations. However, several factors relating to charges and shipping costs may be discouraging some nations from returning such fuel. The U.S. Government has become increasingly concerned with the physical security of highly enriched uranium due to the increase in terrorism. Current methods of conducting physical security reviews within nations receiving U.S. highly enriched uranium are inadequate due to the limitations placed on such reviews by foreign governments. However, officials stated that there is a growing effort to establish some universal safety standards. Nonproliferation efforts have centered around minimizing the use of highly enriched uranium by using a lower grade. GAO stated that a number of obstacles will have to be overcome if such a conversion is to occur.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE and State conducted a survey of foreign facility operators to determine the disincentives. The result showed them to be: high shipping costs, high reprocessing costs caused by legislated full-cost recovery, and concerns about the U.S. position on reprocessing its own research reactor fuel. DOE has no direct control over these disincentives and plans no further action.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should, as part of the review process relating to the extension and possible expansion of the authority to accept spent research reactor fuel, determine the principal reasons why only a small percentage of spent, highly enriched uranium has been returned in the past and adequately address the disincentives to some countries in returning such spent fuel.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should, in conjunction with the Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, streamline and consolidate the information maintained on highly enriched uranium supplied abroad into a more accurate, comprehensive, and flexible system which meets the needs of the intended users in the most economical and efficient manner.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should direct that information from other readily available sources be used to verify and reconcile the data on highly enriched uranium exports within the system.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy


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