On 22 September 2016, a draft text for a UN General Assembly resolution to start talks in 2017 on a nuclear weapons ban treaty was circulated by Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria and South Africa. A vote in the General Assembly First Committee, which is responsible for disarmament, global challenges and threats to peace that affect the international community, is expected in late October, with a full UN General Assembly vote expected in early December.

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On September 19, 2016 the town of Ozersk, Russia, which is the home of the Mayak Plant, held public hearings on the planned shipment of spent fuel of VVR-K reactor from Kazakhstan. The hearings, covered in a news story by Bellona, considered the environmental impact assessment of the project.

According to the documents, Russia is planning to transfer the spent fuel in three shipments, which will include 153 fuel assemblies of the VVR-Ts type originally contained uranium enriched to 36% (126 with five fuel elements and 27 with three fuel elements) as well as 123 fuel assemblies of the VVR-KN type, with 19.7% enriched uranium. The total amount of the fuel prepared for transfer is said to be 504 kg. The VVR-KN fuel assembly was developed in Russia specifically for conversion of the VVR-K reactor to LEU. The first test of the fuel began in 2012 and the reactor conversion was completed in 2016.

Based on the data published by the fuel manufacturer, the Novosibirsk Chemical Concentrates Plant, fresh VVR-Ts fuel assemblies contain 109 g and 83 g of U-235 in 5- and 3-element assemblies respectively. Each fresh VVR-K assembly contains 245 g of U-235. Accordingly, the shipment will include about 43 kg of irradiated 36% HEU and about 153 kg of 19.7% LEU (by the initial uranium-235 content).

The fuel will be transported from Almaty to Koltsovo, Ekaterinburg by air and then to the Mayak Plant by a truck. Radioactive waste will be returned to Kazakhstan. Previous shipment of spent VVR-K fuel from Kazakhstan to Mayak was announced in January 2015.

The Department of Energy submitted an application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (XSNM3777) requesting a license to export 3.0 kg of highly enriched uranium (2.8 kg of uranium-235, maximum enrichment of 93.35%) to Canada. The license request is part of a contingency plan that would be activated only if the NRU reactor has to resume operations to respond to an "extended global shortage of the medical isotope Molybdenum-99." Unless then, no HEU would be transported to Canada.

In February 2015, the Government of Canada announced that the NRU reactor will operate until March 2018. The reactor will not be producing Mo-99 after 31 October 2016, but will remain on hot standby ready to resume production if necessary. (This plan was addressed in the recent National Academies report on Mo-99.)

The most recent export license for supply of 8.1 kg of HEU to Canada, XSNM3761, was requested in 2011 and granted in June 2015.

At the IAEA General Conference in Vienna U.S. Secretary of Energy announced removal of 61 kg of HEU in spent fuel from the Maria research reactor located at the National Center for Nuclear Research, Otwock-Świerk in Poland. The fuel in 17 TUK-19 containers was delivered to the Gdansk airport. It was then airlifted to "a secure facility in Russia," most likely to the Mayak Plant, where it will be reprocessed.

The reactor was reported to be converted to LEU in 2012 but HEU fuel remained in the active zone until now. Previous batch of spent fuel was shipped to Russia in September 2014.

With the removal of the last batch of HEU fuel, Poland has been declared HEU free. it became the 32nd country plus Taiwan that had all HEU removed. The Maria reactor, however, will continue to use HEU for production of medical isotopes.

As part of its plutonium disposition program, the United States has been sending some material to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico. The repository, which opened in 1999, suspended operations after an accident in February 2014. During that time, WIPP accepted about 5.7 MT of plutonium in various forms. The graph and the table below provide data on the amount of plutonium emplaced in WIPP in 1999-2014. The table is based on the official information that the Department of Energy released to researchers.

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This post contains a summary of INFCIRC/549 reports by the countries that submit annual civilian plutonium declarations that reflect the status of civilian plutonium stocks as of 31 December 2015.

  1. Japan (INFCIRC/549/Add.1-19) reported having 10.7 tons of plutonium in the country and 37.1 tonnes abroad (the 2014 numbers were 10.8 and 37.0 tons respectively). In July 2016 Japan also released a more detailed internal version of this report, "The Status of Plutonium Management in Japan".

  2. Germany (INFCIRC/549/Add.2-19) reported 1.8 tons of separated plutonium in the country (2.1 tons in 2014). Germany does not report separated plutonium outside of the country.

  3. Belgium (INFCIRC/549/Add.3-15) declared "less than 50 kg" of separated plutonium in all categories. It is likely that all material belongs to foreign bodies (900 kg was reported in this category in 2014).

  4. Switzerland (INFCIRC/549/Add.4-20) declared "less than 50 kg" of separated plutonium "held elsewhere" (no change from 2014).

  5. France - hasn't submitted its report yet.

  6. The United States - hasn't submitted its report yet.

  7. China (INFCIRC/549/Add.7-15) reported 25.4 kg of separated plutonium (no change from 2014).

  8. The United Kingdom - hasn't submitted its report yet.

  9. Russia (INFCIRC/549/Add.9-18) reported 55.4 tons of civilian plutonium. This includes 53.1 tons of material in storage, 1.5 tons of plutonium in unirradiated MOX and 0.8 tons of plutonium stored elsewhere. The numbers in 2014 were 52, 0.3 and 1.3 tons respectively for the total of 53.6 tons

I addition to reporting plutonium stocks, some countries also submit data on their civilian HEU:

Germany reported 0.3 tonnes of HEU in research reactor fuel, 0.93 tonnes of HEU in irradiated research reactor fuel, and 0.03 tonnes in the category "HEU held elsewhere." The numbers have not changed since 2014.

U.S. National Academies published a report of the Committee on State of Molybdenum-99 Production and Utilization and Progress Toward Eliminating Use of Highly Enriched Uranium, Molybdenum-99 for Medical Imaging. The committee was asked to assess the status of U.S. domestic and international Mo-99 production, assess progress made so far in ensuring reliable supply of medical imaging isotopes, and evaluate the effort to eliminate HEU from the Mo-99 production process.

The report noted that despite significant progress in reducing the use of HEU in the Mo-99 production chain, further "progress is being impeded by several factors, including the continued availability of molybdenum-99 produced with highly enriched uranium targets." The committee recommends that "the U.S. government and others should take additional actions to promote the wider utilization of molybdenum-99 and technetium-99m produced without the use of highly enriched uranium targets."

The National Academies also looked at the issue of HEU role in medical isotope production in the report Medical Isotope Production Without Highly Enriched Uranium, published in 2009.

A new uranium enrichment centrifuge plant may be under construction at the Khan Research Laboratories site at Kahuta in Pakistan. In an article published in Jane's Intelligence Review IHS Jane's and Project Alpha, a research group based at King's College London, identified the site, which is located at 33°36'48.4"N 73°22'20.1"E. It can be seen on Google Maps image dated July 8, 2016:

According to IHS Jane's assessment, the construction began at some point in 2015 and may be completed in 2017 or early 2018. Although the actual function of the facility cannot be determined with certainty from the satellite imagery at this time, a uranium enrichment plant appears to be a strong possibility.

Pakistan is believed to have two operational enrichment facilities, Kahuta and Gadwal, each having an estimated capacity of about 15-45 tSWU/year. The Kahuta complex has an older North production area where enrichment may have ended and a South area that was constructed later and may be active. It is possible that the plant currently under construction may use more advanced centrifuges, and could replace the South area facility. The Gadwal complex, located in a different place, is believed to be a relatively new facility that produces HEU from LEU produced at Kahuta.

The total enrichment capacity that Pakistan can operate may be constrained by uranium resources, since it also needs to fuel its four plutonium production reactors at Khushab, the fourth of which began operating in January 2015. Pakistan has had issues with availability of natural uranium. In 2009, Pakistan announced a new project "to mine uranium from Shanawa Uranium Mine, District Karak in NWFP". The mine is located at 32.8740 N, 71.0740 E. The project, estimated to cost Rs 3.348 billion (about $40 million at the time), was to be completed in 2014. Project funding was cut in 2011, but was apparently restored in 2013--the Government of Pakistan Public Sector Development plans since show a funding line for "MPB-2, Shanawa Uranium Mining Project (Karak), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa." There is no information concerning uranium production from this new mine.

Masafumi Takubo and Frank von Hippel

On 29 August 2016, Mainichi Shimbun reported on an ongoing review by Japan's Cabinet Secretariat of options for the future of Monju. According to Mainichi, the Secretariat estimates that it would cost ¥600 billion (~$6 billion) to operate Monju for ten years. Japan's Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) estimated in December 2012 that decommissioning the reactor would cost ¥300 billion (~$3 billion).

JAEA completed construction of its 350-MWe Monju prototype fast-neutron reactor and connected it to the grid in August 1995 but the reactor was shut down four months later by a fire caused by leakage of its molten sodium coolant. It was restarted again 15 years later, in May 2010, but was shut down again three months later by a refueling accident. Since 2012, it has been impossible to restart the plant because of safety inspection violations. The plant therefore has operated a total of only 250 days in two decades. In November 2015, Japan's Nuclear Regulation Authority called for new (non-JAEA) management but none of Japan's nuclear utilities has been willing to take the project on.

With the huge projected costs for restarting the plant and no operator in sight, it would be natural for the Shinzō Abe Administration to consider cancelling Monju - as France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States cancelled their prototype breeder reactors in the 1980s and 1990s.

Cancelling Monju would bring Japan's whole plutonium program into question, however. The Abe Administration's new reprocessing law, discussed below, suggests that it is unwilling to accept such a prospect.

The price for restarting Monju would include the cost of upgrading it to post-Fukushima-accident safety standards for fast-breeder reactors. Those standards have yet to be established. It also would include the cost of upgrading the safety of Japan's Tokai Plutonium Fuel Production Facility (PFPF) so that it could produce fuel for Monju at an estimated cost of nearly ¥100 billion(~$1 billion). Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), which funds Monju, says some of its fuel would have to be replaced even before startup because of the loss of reactivity due to decay of the 14-year half-life isotope Pu-241. Sixty percent of the 1995 core had to be replaced in 2010 for this reason.

The ¥1.2 trillion (~$12 billion) spent on Monju thus far already makes it comparable in cost to France's much larger (1240 MWe) Superphénix breeder reactor, which was shut down in 1998 after operating for 13 years at an average capacity factor of only 5.5 percent. (The global average capacity factor for water-cooled power reactors was 74 percent in 2015.)

The total failure of the Monju project creates an opportunity for Japan to reconsider the future of Japan's Rokkasho Reprocessing Plant (RRP), now the only remaining plant dedicated to separating nuclear-weapon-usable plutonium in a non-nuclear-weapon state. Although the commercial operation of the RRP has been repeatedly delayed - cumulatively for 20 years at this point - the Abe Administration's plan is to start operations as soon as possible.

Japan's fast-neutron breeder-reactor program, with Monju as its flagship, was the original and is still the ultimate rationale for the reprocessing program. In the 1960s and 1970s, the purpose of civilian plutonium separation in Japan and other countries was to supply startup plutonium fuel for breeder reactors that, thereafter, would supply their own plutonium fuel by "breeding" it out of the abundant non-chain-reacting uranium isotope, U-238. But the liquid-sodium-cooled breeder reactors proved economically uncompetitive with water-cooled reactors fueled with uranium enriched in natural chain-reacting U-235.

Due to the economic failure of their breeder programs and the resulting accumulation of separated plutonium in France and Japan, the near-term rationale for their fast-neutron reactor development programs shifted to fissioning separated plutonium and other long-lived transuranic elements (reactor-produced elements heavier than uranium) so as to remove them from radioactive waste to be placed in final geological disposal sites. The slow neutrons in water-cooled reactors can only fission some of these isotopes. Breeder-reactor advocates promoted fast-neutron reactors to fission transuranics despite the fact that those responsible for radioactive management in both countries had concluded that doing so would not significantly reduce the danger to surface waters from deeply buried radioactive waste.

Despite the loss of the rationale for reprocessing, Japan's Government recently buttressed the RRP financially by passing a law to create an organization authorized to collect funds from Japan's nuclear utilities for reprocessing spent fuel at the time it is generated. The purpose of the law is to guarantee that all of Japan's low-enriched power reactor fuel will be reprocessed and the recovered plutonium fabricated into MOX fuel, even if the utilities owning the power plants producing the spent fuel go bankrupt when Japan fully liberalizes its electricity market.

According to a 2011 estimate by Japan's Atomic Energy Commission, operating the RRP will cost about ¥200 billion (~$2 billion) per year to produce plutonium with a fuel value that is less than the cost of fabricating it into fuel. The economics of reprocessing in France are similarly irrational. One therefore needs to find other explanations than those stated for the persistence of reprocessing in France and Japan. Partial explanations include:

  • The thousands of jobs and government subsidies to local and regional governments associated with reprocessing and related facilities have become important to the rural areas where they are located;
  • Abandoning the pursuit of a plutonium economy would be seen by elite nuclear technocrats as an admission that they had wasted the equivalents of tens of billions of taxpayers' dollars;
  • Reprocessing is government policy and therefore not responsive to market economics; and
  • In Japan, some see its reprocessing capability as providing a virtual nuclear deterrent.

U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration announced the completion of the down-blending of all HEU that remained in the country. The final batch of material consisted of about 1.4 kg of irradiated HEU stored in hot cells. Earlier this year, Indonesia announced the completion of down-blending of all fresh HEU.

Indonesia became the 31st country plus Taiwan that eliminated or removed all their HEU. Note that NNSA news release refers to Indonesia as "the 30th country" - the discrepancy is because NNSA list does not include Iraq.