Tracking highly enriched uranium and plutonium, the key nuclear weapon materials

The International Panel on Fissile Materials has released a new research report, Alternatives to MOX: Direct-disposal Options for Stockpiles of Separated Plutonium, by Frank von Hippel and Gordon MacKerron (pdf file).

The report reviews programs in France, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States to dispose of large stocks of separated plutonium in nuclear power reactor mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel. Most of these efforts have suffered long delays and large cost increases and all have failed to reduce plutonium stockpiles. This has led some of these countries to consider alternatives.

A less costly and more effective approach may be to treat plutonium as a waste to be processed into a stable form and deeply buried. These alternative approaches include disposal with radioactive waste or spent fuel or disposal down a 3-mile (5-kilometer) deep borehole.

The report recommends that more than one direct-disposal approach be pursued. It also recommends that the countries that share the problem of plutonium disposal collaborate on exploring direct-disposal options. Finally, it recommends that the quantities of plutonium disposed by the weapon states be verified by the IAEA.

On April 9th, 2015, France formally deposited a draft fissile material cutoff treaty at the Conference on Disarmament. The draft, "Projet français de Traité interdisant la production de matières fissiles pour les armes nucléaires ou d'autres dispositifs explosifs nucléaires (FMCT)" is available from France's Delegation to the Conference on Disarmament or from the IPFM library (English pdf, French pdf)

Shaun Burnie, with Mycle Schneider

On March 20, 2015, it was announced that Taipower is to suspend the tendering process for the reprocessing of spent fuel from the Chinshan and Kuosheng reactors. Contract bids were requested for the reprocessing of an initial batch of 480 spent fuel assemblies from Chinshan and 720 assemblies from Kuonsheng to be shipped overseas between 2015 and 2018. Following the intervention of cross party members of the Legislative Yuan (National Parliament) on March 16, 2015, the Economics Committee overwhelmingly demanded that the tendering process should be suspended pending approval of the budget by the Yuan. The Government had indicated that T$11.3 billion (about $371 million) would be required to cover the reprocessing of 1,200 assemblies. In turn, parliamentary members accused Taipower and the Ministry of Economic Affairs of trying to initiate a bidding process with foreign companies without parliamentary oversight and of misusing the nation's nuclear back-end management fund before legal guidelines governing its administration had been drawn up. It is unclear whether Taipower had received bids for reprocessing services prior to the decision to suspend the process. The expectation is that AREVA and its La Hague plant in northern France would have secured the contract. The prospects for this proceeding as planned now appear less certain.

Shaun Burnie, with Mycle Schneider

The forty-year-long efforts by the state owned Taiwan Power Company (Taipower) to secure large-scale spent fuel reprocessing moved a step further in early 2015 with the issuing of a call for tender by the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA) and (Taipower). Although the tendering process is open to all bidders, the French state-owned company AREVA is expected to secure the contract for reprocessing at its La Hague plant in Normandy. That Taiwan is in a position to sign a reprocessing contract is a result of a decision of the U.S. administration to reverse previous U.S. policy over the past four decades and grant case-by-case reprocessing rights under the December 20, 2013 Agreement for Cooperation Between the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States (TECRO) Concerning Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy. The deadline for submission of contract bids was March 16, 2015 April 8, 2015 [UPDATE 03/24/15: The date corrected based on later reports].

The spent fuel arises from the Chinshan and Kuosheng Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs). Although the Atomic Energy Commission and Taipower developed dry storage proposals for both reactors, opposition at the local level has so far prevented the operation of these facilities. The spent fuel pools at the reactor sites were 97 percent full as of February 2015, despite opting for high-density storage, with them reaching their capacity as of 2016. In the case of the Chinshan plant, the INER-HPS dry storage system has been constructed with a planned 56 assemblies in each of the 30 casks, for a total of 1,680 spent fuel assemblies. Currently the Chinshan plant spent fuel pools holds 6,046 assemblies with a maximum capacity of 6,166 assemblies. In the case of the Kuosheng plant, 27 MAGNASTOR concrete casks were planned to be used, capable of storing 87 BWR assemblies each (for a total of 2,349 assemblies). Currently, the Kuosheng spent fuel pools contain 8,432 assemblies with a maximum capacity of 8,796 assemblies. All spent fuel is less than 40 GW days per ton burn-up, with average enrichment ratio of U-235 between 1.75-5 percent of total uranium. The Chinshan dry storage system was planned to be operational by June 2014, and the Kuonsheng facility by 2016.

In October 2014, a Taiwan government task force recommended opting for reprocessing of spent fuel. The Government indicated that T$11.3 billion (about $371 million) would be needed for the pilot project for the period 2015 through December 2035, beginning with T$1.695 billion in 2015 followed by allocations of T$3.1 billion in 2016, 2017 and 2018, and T$350 million in 2035. Taipower is aiming to export a test batch of spent fuel--1,200 fuel assemblies in total (480 assemblies from Chinshan and 720 assemblies from Kuonsheng)--with the first batch of 300 assemblies before the end of 2015. In total, the aim is to export 17,000 fuel assemblies for reprocessing during the coming years.

Under the model contract terms, two spent fuel cask designs are to be used, with delivery of test casks prior to the first shipment during 2015. A further 300 assemblies will be shipped in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Plutonium Transfer

On the basis that AREVA secures the contract with Taiwan, Taipower will remain the owner of the spent fuel as well as conditioned materials. The quantity of each of the conditioned materials (reprocessed uranium, plutonium, and residues) shall be allocated to Taipower according to an accounting system validated by Taipower. However, under 3.2.1 Management of the Plutonium in the draft contract, Taipower shall transfer ownership of the plutonium within ten years, and the final solution for the plutonium "in a third party civilian reactors'" is to be determined in line with the terms of the U.S. Taiwan nuclear cooperation agreement. The draft contract stipulates: "For the avoidance of doubts, the Supplier shall never ship back the Plutonium to R.O.C."

Under the terms of the U.S.-Taiwan agreement, and the proposed contract, only resulting designated nuclear waste is to be returned to Taiwan, with all plutonium and uranium separated at the reprocessing plant to be retained in the reprocessing state. In that sense the U.S. agreement is seen as compatible with its stated non-proliferation objectives. However, the fact that the U.S. has granted reprocessing rights to Taiwan, will not go unnoticed in East Asia, not least in the Republic of Korea, which is continuing to secure reprocessing rights under the yet to be concluded revised peaceful cooperation agreement with the United States. It can also be argued that it endorses the principal of reprocessing as a legitimate spent fuel management option, at a time when in Japan no commercial reactors are in operation, yet current government policy is to continue efforts to operate the Rokkasho-mura reprocessing plant.

If all proposed 17,000 assemblies, roughly 3,000 tons of heavy metal, were reprocessed, approximately 30 metric tons of reactor grade plutonium would be separated. If this material is not to be returned to Taiwan in any form, it means that the reprocessor would take title of it. There are multiple problems linked to this scenario, in case of AREVA winning the bid:

  • Currently, AREVA NC, AREVA's reprocessing branch, does not have any foreign client any more for the processing of any significant quantity of commercial spent fuel and 99 percent of the close to 10,000 tons of spent fuel awaiting reprocessing at La Hague are French. A new foreign contract could significantly impact decisions on the future of the reprocessing activity.
  • France already has a very large national stockpile of unirradiated plutonium (60.2 tons as of the end of 2013). It has already taken title to significant quantities of plutonium, including from Germany and Italy. There are still around 18 tons of Japanese plutonium in France that are not subject to an operational disposition strategy.
  • French reactors that are licensed to operate with up to 30 percent of plutonium bearing MOX fuel are reaching the end of their lifetimes. If France wanted to absorb all of its own unirradiated plutonium prior to age 40 of the MOX-using reactors, it would have to stop separating new plutonium by 2018-19. If France wanted to irradiate also all of the foreign plutonium prior to the possible closure of the reactors in question, it would have to stop reprocessing in 2015. (For details, see the upcoming IPFM report on reprocessing in the world, to be released in May 2015.)
  • There is very little storage space left for spent fuel in the pools at the La Hague site. The acceptance of the Taiwanese fuel would exacerbate the shortage of storage capacity for French fuel and other items stored in the pools (including MOX fabrication wastes, unirradiated fuel, etc.).

U.S. opposition and intervention to domestic reprocessing efforts in Taiwan stretches back to the early 1970's following assessments that the government was pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. A Special Intelligence National Assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) concluded in 1974 that Taiwan could be nuclear capable in little more than five years, and pressure from Washington increased dramatically. Multiple diplomatic cables and intelligence assessments during the period from the mid 1960's and late 1970's confirmed Taiwan's extensive efforts to secure fissile material for weapons purposes. Taiwan had completed a 'hot cell' - a laboratory-scale reprocessing facility - with technology from Saint-Gobain Nucléaire (then a COGEMA subsidiary) in 1975, but the facility was shut down in 1977, in response to U.S. pressure. Taiwan continued efforts to secure a larger 50-ton per year reprocessing plant from Germany, and a 100-ton per year plant from COGEMA. Both efforts were blocked by direct U.S. intervention. Interest in securing plutonium for nuclear weapons continued into the 1980's with the construction of a multiple hot cell facility at the Institute for Nuclear Energy Research (INER), in violation of a 1976 agreement with the U.S. Following U.S. pressure in 1988, the facility was dismantled and ownership of INER was transferred from the Taiwan military to the AEC. Allegations that Taiwan's government was planning to reactivate nuclear weapons were made by opposition politicians in 2004 and again in the run-up to the 2007 presidential elections.

The politics of nuclear power in Taiwan are highly contentious, in particular following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. As a result of mass public protests and the Democratic Progressive Party in opposition, nuclear phase out is on the agenda in Taiwan. While opposition to reprocessing exports was originally muted in late 2014, in recent weeks public and political opposition has arisen to Taipower's plans, with calls for the tender to be withdrawn and disclosure of contract terms.

U.S. Department of Energy submitted a request for an export license XSNM3761 to supply 7.56 kg of U-235 (in 8.1 kg of HEU enriched to maximum 93.35%) to the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL). The final use of the material is listed as "for use in the fabrication of targets to be irradiated in the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor for the production of medical isotopes." The time frame of the shipment is April 2015-November 2015.

CNL has been managing the Chalk River Laboratories, the operator of the NRU reactor since October 2014, taking over that responsibility from the Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL).

The NRU reactor was scheduled to be shut down in October 2016, but in February 2015 the Canadian government extended its operation until March 2018. Canada appears to have provided the United States with assurances that the reactor will not use HEU in targets after 2016, but it is not clear if the operator has a plan to convert the production to LEU.

Previous export license, XSNM3752 to ship 7.5 kg of HEU (7 kg U-235), was requested in June 2014 and granted in August 2014.

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved an export license XSNM3756 that authorized export of 7.28 kg of U-235 contained in 7.8 kg of uranium be shipped for use in Mo-99 production at the Institute for Radioelements (IRE) in Belgium. The targets are to be manufactured by CERCA Areva and target irradiation to be performed in the following reactors: BR2 in Belgium, HFR Petten in the Netherlands, OSIRIS in France, LVR-15 in Czech Republic, and Maria in Poland.

IPFM research report "Fissile Material Controls in the Middle East: Steps toward a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and all other Weapons of Mass Destruction" by Frank von Hippel, Seyed Hossein Mousavian, Emad Kiyaei, Harold Feiveson and Zia Mian is now available in Arabic. Here is a direct link to pdf file:

ضوابط المواد الانشطارية في الشرق الاوسط: خطوات نحو شرق اوسط خال من الاسلحة النووية و غيرها من اسلحة الدمار الشامل

The report suggests possible initiatives for fissile material control that could serve as initial steps toward an eventual Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction. These initiatives include actions that Israel, the only regional state with nuclear weapons, could take towards nuclear disarmament; and measures of collective restraint regarding fissile material production and use to be taken by all states of the region to foster confidence that their civilian nuclear activities are indeed peaceful in intent and not being pursued as a cover to develop nuclear-weapon options.

The report is also available in Hebrew:

שליטה בחומרים בקיעים במזרח התיכון. צעדים לקראת מזרח תיכון חופשי מנשק גרעיני וכל סוגי הנשק להשמדה המונית

New satellite imagery, published by the Institute for Science and International Security, suggests Pakistan may have completed its Chashma reprocessing plant.

Work on the reprocessing plant stated in 1974 when Pakistan signed a contract with the French company Saint-Gobain Techniques Nouvelles (SGN). In 1978, under U.S. pressure, France canceled the contract. But it is believed that significant design information and some technology may have been transferred.

Satellite imagery from 2007 showed that Pakistan had resumed worked on the reprocessing plant at Chashma.

In 2012, a semi-official account of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb, stated that "The commercial-scale reprocessing plant at Chashma is ... nearing completion" (page 395).

The new reprocessing plant, when operating, will add to the capacity now available at the small plants at the New Labs site in Rawalpindi. This may allow Pakistan to reprocess all the fuel from its four plutonium production reactors at Khushab, all of which are now operating.

The National Nuclear Security Administration submitted an application for an export license XSNM3757 to send"121.1 kg [of] uranium-235 contained in 130.0 kg [of] uranium" to the Areva CERCA facility to be used to manufacture fuel for the High Flux Reactor in France.

Speaking at the Atucha II nuclear power plant on February 18, 2015, President Cristina Fernandez of Argentina announced that "Argentina is back in the select club of 11 countries that can produce enriched uranium."

The announcement followed earlier reports that suggested that Argentina was going to restart production of enriched uranium at its Pilcaniyeu plant in the fall of 2014.

Argentina first announced its intention to restart the plant in Pilcaniyeu in October 2010. At the time the plant was expected to produce first enriched uranium in 2011.