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

Shaun Burnie with Mycle Schneider

The Belgian Nuclear Research Centre (SCK CEN) has extended a 1997 contract with AREVA for the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel from the BR2 research reactor in Mol. The reprocessing contract is one of only a few remaining overseas agreements held by AREVA. No details on fuel volumes or length of contract were provided by either AREVA or SCK CEN. However, the quantities of fuel involved are very small. The total quantity of spent fuel received between 1998 and 2006 was only 454 kg, of which 128 kg remained to be processed as of the end of 2013. A total of about 1,000 fuel elements were shipped in 18 transports from Mol to AREVA's La Hague plant in Normandy, France.

The BR2, which began operation in 1963, has no limit to its operational license, with the next ten year safety review due in 2016. SCK CEN are proposing to continue operation of the reactor beyond 2020 if possible, including a future research role in the development of the Myrrha fast spectrum research reactor (ADS).

Conversion of the BR2 from the current use Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) to Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) fuel is planned to be introduced from 2016, on the condition that fuel plates with sufficient uranium density will be qualified and available. A joint program between SCK CEN and Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) for the development of LEU uranium-molybdenum (UMo) dispersion fuel, has confirmed that the selected UMo fuel design could be used in the BR2 core. The experimental qualification for the use of this LEU fuel under high performance research reactor's operating conditions is still in progress.

Germany submitted to IAEA its annual declaration of holdings of civilian plutonium and highly enriched uranium as of December 31, 2013 - INFCIRC/549/Add.2/17.

The document states that in 2013 the amount of plutonium in Germany increased from 2.4 tonnes to 3.0 tonnes. This plutonium is reported in the category "separated unirradiated plutonium contained in unirradiated MOX fuel or other fabricated products." Germany, however, does not report Germany-owned material that is located outside of the country.

In addition to separated plutonium, Germany reported 103.5 tonnes of plutonium is contained in spent fuel stored at reactor sites (this number is up from 100.2 in 2012) and 6.0 tonnes - in irradiated fuel "held elsewhere" (this number hasn't changed since 2012).

Germany declared that it has 0.27 tonnes (0.24 tonnes in 2012) of HEU in research reactors, 0.93 tonnes of irradiated HEU in storage, and 0.03 tonnes of HEU "held elsewhere." The last two numbers has not changed since 2012. Again, Germany these numbers do not include any HEU that might be owned by Germany but located outside of the country. Germany justifies this position by noting that all its nuclear material is the property of EU and subject to Euratom safeguards.

The United Kingdom released information about its holdings of civilian plutonium and uranium as of December 31, 2013. The report was published and an IAEA document INFCIRC/549/Add.8/17.

According to the document, as of the end of 2013 the U.K. had 118.8 (116.1 in 2012) tonnes of separated unirradiated plutonium at the reprocessing facilities, 0.8 (1.2) tonnes in unirradiated MOX fuel and 1.9 (1.9) tonnes in the MOX fuel manufacturing process. Additional 1.5 (1.0) tonnes of unirradiated plutonium is "held elsewhere." These numbers include the 4.7 tonnes of plutonium that the United Kingdom declared as excess to its national security needs. This material has been transferred to the civilian stock and placed under Euratom safeguards.

Of this total of 123.0 (120.2) tonnes, 23.4 (23.8) tonnes belonged to foreign countries. In addition, the U.K. had 0.9 tonnes of its plutonium outside of country. No material was in transit.

The total amount of separated civilian Pu in the UK is 123.0 tonnes (120.2 tonnes in 2012), the total amount of UK owned plutonium is 100.5 tonnes (97.3 in 2012). The increase of the UK owned plutonium reflects the result of a series of title swaps, performed in April 2013, in which 2,950 kg of plutonium were transferred to the UK custody. The numbers, however, does not take into account the 2014 plutonium title transfers.

In addition, the United Kingdom declared 8 tonnes of plutonium in spent fuel held at reactor sites (7 tonnes were reported in this category in 2012), 23 (24) tonnes - in spent fuel at reprocessing plants awaiting reprocessing, and less than 500 kg - in spent fuel held elsewhere.

The report also contains information about civilian HEU holdings - the United Kingdom had 1398 kg of the material, up from 1396 kg in 2012. Of this HEU, 342 kg is at fabrication plants (343 in 2012), 914 (912) kg - at laboratories and research facilities, 10 kg - irradiated HEU at civilian reactor cites, and 131 kg - irradiated HEU at other sites.

In its annual report of civilian plutonium holdings, published by IAEA as document INFCIRC/549/add.7/13, China declared having 13.8 kg of unirradiated separated plutonium "in product stores at reprocessing plants" as of December 31, 2013. The amount and location of the plutonium have not changed since 2010 (see the 2010, 2011, and 2012 declarations).

France submitted a declaration of its civilian plutonium and HEU holdings as of December 31, 2013 - INFCIRC/549/Add.5/18. According to the document, at the end of 2013 France had 43.2 tonnes of unirradiated separated plutonium stored at reprocessing plants, 6.6 tonnes held up in the fuel fabrication process, 27.7 tonnes in unirradiated MOX fuel, and 0.6 tonnes described as "held elsewhere" - it is the material that is held up in the reprocessing plant and located at research facilities. Of the total of 78.1 tonnes, 17.9 tonnes is foreign material. Less than 50 kg of French plutonium is held outside of the country. No material was in transit. In its 2012 declaration, France reported having the total of 80.6 tonnes of separated plutonium, of which 22.2 tonnes were foreign material.

In addition, France estimates that about 115.2 tonnes of plutonium is contained in spent fuel stored at reactor sites, 147.3 tonnes - in spent fuel at the reprocessing plant, and 6.4 tonnes - in spent fuel "held elsewhere." The total amount of plutonium in spent fuel is therefore 268.9 tonnes, an increase compared to the 261.4 tonnes declared in 2012.

The declaration also describes France's civilian HEU stock. At the end of 2012 France had 860 (968 in 2012) kg of HEU at fuel fabrication plants, 413 (1,819) kg at civilian reactor sites, 1841 (428) kg at research facilities, 106 (123) kg as irradiated HEU at civilian reactor sites, and 1,497 (1,406) kg of irradiated HEU at other facilities.

On June 4 and 5 2014, at the United Nations Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva, Ambassador Zamir Akram declared that Pakistan would continue to block the start of negotiations for a possible Fissile Material (Cutoff) Treaty because of its concerns over the expected scope of such a treaty and provided new details about the kind of FM(C)T that Pakistan seeks.

Pakistan in recent years has been blocking the start of talks on an FM(C)T by withholding support for the annual agenda of work required by the CD for negotiations to proceed -- the CD operates on the principle of consensus among its 65 member countries. A December 1993 consensus resolution of the United Nations General Assembly charged the CD to negotiate a "non-discriminatory, multilateral and internationally and effectively verifiable treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices." Despite reaching agreement in 1995 on a negotiating mandate (known as the Shannon Mandate after Canadian Ambassador Gerald Shannon), talks have failed to start.

Speaking on 4 June, Ambassador Zamir Akram reiterated the basis for Pakistan's long standing opposition to FM(C)T talks, citing concerns that India has accumulated a larger total fissile material stockpile than Pakistan, and the decision by the United States and other key countries, including those of the 48-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), to waive three-decade old nuclear trade sanctions on India but to leave them in place for Pakistan. Ambassador Akram said: "We are opposed to negotiating a treaty that only aims at a cut-off in future production of fissile material, without addressing existing stockpiles. This is because of the asymmetry of stocks in our region that has been compounded by the discriminatory civil nuclear cooperation agreements and NSG waivers. In such a situation, an FMCT would freeze the discriminatory status quo and confront Pakistan's security with a permanent disadvantage."

Pakistan is concerned in particular about India's estimated 5 tons of unsafeguarded plutonium separated from power reactor fuel and its large stock of power reactor spent nuclear fuel awaiting reprocessing. IPFM estimates that India's stockpile of separated plutonium for weapons is about 0.57 tons while Pakistan has about 0.17 tons of plutonium for weapons. Pakistan's rate of production of plutonium is increasing, however, with its third plutonium production reaction having started operation in 2013 and construction underway on a fourth reactor.

India also is estimated to have about 2.7 tons of HEU enriched to about 30% for use as naval reactor fuel. Pakistan is estimated to have 3.1 tons of HEU enriched to weapon-grade, for use in weapons.

On 5 June, Ambassador Akram said Pakistan would continue to block negotiations at the CD unless the issue of existing stockpiles was addressed, stating that "Unless the existing stocks are explicitly included in the mandate for treaty negotiations, Pakistan would not be able join consensus on the commencement of negotiations... the issue of stocks... needs to be made explicit in the negotiation mandate upfront without any ambiguity."

Explaining Pakistan's view on what existing fissile material stockpiles should be covered by an FM(C)T, Ambassador Akram said that only "fissile material present in deployed nuclear warheads or warhead components in storage" should remain outside safeguards, with all other fissile material stocks having to be placed under safeguards to assure they are not diverted to nuclear weapons use.

Pakistan proposed the FM(C)T should put under safeguards:

  • fissile material that has not been weaponized as yet, but set aside either for new warheads or for the replacement and refurbishment of existing warheads,

  • irradiated fuel and reactor-grade separated plutonium produced from any unsafeguarded reactor - military or otherwise,

  • fissile material from retired warheads or those in the dismantlement queue, including such material already in waste disposal sites,

  • fissile material declared excess for military purposes,

  • fissile material for non-proscribed military activities like naval propulsion etc.,

  • fissile material designated for civil purposes.

Safeguards on the first category of material would leave weapon states with no reserve or working stock of fissile material for weapon purposes and thus would freeze nuclear arsenals. Safeguards on the second category are clearly intended to capture India's stockpile of unsafeguarded spent fuel and separated plutonium for its nuclear power reactors. Given that independent estimates of nuclear arsenal sizes (such as those by the Federation of Atomic Scientists) assign Pakistan and India comparable numbers of nuclear weapons (100-120 and 90-110 respectively as of 2014), this proposal would serve in effect to give Pakistan the parity it seeks with India. Taken together these proposals suggest Pakistan may intend to keep all its fissile material stockpile in the form of components in deployed warheads or as stored warhead components.

Recognizing that other nuclear weapon states may want to keep working stocks of fissile materials for weapon programs and be unwilling to place these stockpiles under safeguards, Pakistan proposes as a fall back that these stockpiles be reduced to "the lowest possible levels necessary for the safe maintenance of nuclear arsenals through mutual and balanced reductions on a regional or global basis."

Pakistan's proposal to include under the FM(C)T material from retired warheads, those awaiting dismantlement, and fissile material for naval propulsion, would require extending inspections into nuclear warhead dismantlement facilities and military naval fuel cycle facilities and naval bases. Proposals for how this might be done can be found in Global Fissile Material Report 2008: Scope and Verification of a Fissile Material (Cutoff) Treaty.

India is planning to launch its 500 MW Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor (PFBR) in March 2015. At the beginning of the construction in 2004 the reactor was expected to be commissioned in 2010. However, the launch date was corrected several times (for example, in September 2010, November 2010, in 2012).

by Martin Forwood, with Mycle Schneider

Responding to requests for information from local group CORE (Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment), Sellafield Ltd has confirmed that a total of 4,373 tonnes of overseas fuel is expected to have been reprocessed by the time THORP completes all existing overseas contracts in 2016--a shortfall of almost 1,000 tonnes on the plant's original 5,334-tonne overseas order book.

In detail, the Company has confirmed that 4,189 tonnes of overseas spent fuel had been reprocessed to date, with a further 184 tonnes still to be reprocessed. The latter, a majority of which is confirmed by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) as being of German origin, is projected to be reprocessed over the next two financial years 2014/15 and 2015/16.

At its opening in 1994, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) confirmed that Sellafield's £2.8 billion (US$4.7 billion) Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) had secured overseas contracts amounting to 5,334 tonnes of Light Water Reactor (LWR) spent fuel from utilities in Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands and Canada.

As the Table below shows, the majority of this overseas fuel was scheduled for reprocessing, along with UK's Advanced Gas Cooled Reactor (AGR) fuel, in THORP's first 10-year "Baseload" period. The remainder, destined for reprocessing in the Post-Baseload period, had been secured from German utilities only--an order book that BNFL confidently predicted would be swelled by further overseas contracts. That the reserved capacity of 295 tonnes--taking the Baseload total to 7,000 tonnes--was taken up by overseas customers appears likely but remains to be confirmed.


THORP Reprocessing Contracts, MTHM (Source: BNFL 1997)


Contrary to the confident prediction of new orders for THORP's Post-Baseload period being placed by overseas customers, no such new business has ever been secured and the progress of existing overseas contracts has, with few exceptions, been deliberately withheld from public scrutiny by the plant's operators on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. Other than having to admit the loss of some German contracts within just a few months of plant startup, the only public announcements have been to acclaim the completion of individual country's contracts: the Japanese in 2005, the Dutch in 2009 and Italian business due for completion in 2014. The early loss of German business can now be seen to represent the proverbial tip of the iceberg whose size has only now become clear.

The loss over the years of some 1,000 tonnes, or 20% of all overseas business originally secured for THORP, re-ignites and further challenges the viability of the economic case for the plant. The economic justification was bitterly contested by opponents in the run-up to its opening in 1994 when it was projected to generate some £9 billion (US$15 billion) for BNFL and "make a profit of at least £500M [US$840 million] during its first ten years of operation". But in keeping with Government and industry reticence to provide information on the progress of overseas contracts, there has been a similar void in publication of any form of "profit and loss" figures for THORP individually, a tactic that on the one hand allows officialdom to maintain its claim of the plant's financial viability, but on the other serves only to stoke suspicions of another White Elephant at Sellafield.

For in retrospect, the undisclosed costs of two decades of accidents and equipment malfunctions that required repair, replacement and/or reconfiguration, the delays of almost a decade in completing overseas customers' orders--plus the £500,000 (US$ 840 million) Crown Court fine for the INES Level 3 leakage of 83,000 liters of dissolved fuel in 2005--will inevitably have dented THORP's profitability despite some of these unplanned additional costs being passed on, under the "cost-plus-fee" service agreements, to overseas customers. For their part, frustrated customers had already warned BNFL in 2000 that "such cost increases and uncertainties are commercially highly unsatisfactory" especially as they were "losing confidence in BNFL's technical ability" (Base Load Customer (BLC Non-UK) Statement to BNFL, London, 18th September 2000). This justified reference to THORP's repeated failure to meet either design specification or annual throughput targets has subsequently been borne out by Sellafield's confirmation that the plant's Baseload order book was finally completed in 2012, some nine years late.

Whilst the economic and operational status of overseas contracts remains obscure, there is far less uncertainty about where the major loss of overseas business has come from. For data collated from German Government and GRS (Gesellschaft für Reaktorsicherheit) sources on the amount of spent fuel delivered to Sellafeld shows a significant reduction on the volume originally contracted. Overall, the data shows that of the combined Baseload and Post-Baseload contracts secured from eleven German power stations, just 60 percent was actually transported to Sellafield. This significant reduction is clearly tied to the late 1990's amendment to Germany's Atomic Law, which finally allowed its utilities to abandon reprocessing--which had been considered mandatory--and opt instead for the long-term dry storage of the fuel at the power stations in Germany. A further breakdown of the figures reveals that of the 787 tonnes of German fuel contracted for THORP's Post-Baseload, only 113 tonnes from Emsland had been transported from Germany by 2005--the cut-off date after which spent fuel shipments to reprocessing plants were prohibited. Given that now known overall contract loss has amounted to almost 1,000 tonnes, this loss of 674 tonnes of Post-Baseload business from Germany indicates that some Baseload contracts must also have been abandoned.

Government approval for the start-up of THORP in 1994 was based on an economic analysis whose details were kept secret on the grounds of commercial confidentiality, and its view that the plant's projected economic benefit justified all other detriments. That Government conclusion appears even more shaky today than it did in 1994, particularly when the most recent reprocessing schedules for THORP are factored into the financial equation. For at a meeting of a local Sellafield Stakeholder Group sub-committee meeting earlier this year, it was confirmed that whilst the overseas fuel contracts would be completed by 2016, THORP's operation for the remaining two years (to plant closure in 2018) would see only UK's Advanced Gas Cooled Reactor (AGR) fuel being reprocessed, a practice that had never previously been identified by the industry in any of its projections or source material.

Indeed, the issue of why AGR spent fuel had to be reprocessed at all has been raised repeatedly with the industry in the past and featured as a major topic of debate by the various Working Groups of the BNFL Stakeholder Dialogue process in the early 2000's. In subsequent follow-up meetings, the then BNFL THORP Director confirmed that "whilst stocks of overseas fuel remained to be reprocessed, technical considerations dictated that both fuel types would continue to be pushed through THORP" but that "it was not economic to continue reprocessing AGR fuel once all overseas LWR fuel had been done" (David Bonser, BNFL Director of Alpha/LMU Interface to NGO Autumn Meeting, Daresbury, 2003).

Sellafield Ltd now however denies that this is the case, though the original scheduling of overseas LWR fuel being reprocessed annually in tandem with UK AGR fuel is clearly tabled in the 1995 draft report by NAC International (Worldwide Reprocessing Summary), which lists in minutest detail the data supplied by BNFL "as reprocessor" for each individual contract for THORP. Further, rather than being financially driven, the primary reason for reprocessing AGR fuel today is well documented as being the urgent requirement to keep it moving through the system so as to maintain sufficient storage pond capacity available at Sellafield to accept the weekly rail imports of spent fuel from the AGR power stations. Without this spare capacity, and suffering from dangerously limited storage capacity at their own sites, the AGR stations would be forced to invest into alternative storage options like dry storage, to reduce electricity generation levels or close down altogether if their escape route to Sellafield was compromised.

In April 2014 the European Commission released a Report on the Implementation of Euratom Safeguards in 2013 that contains a detailed description of the Euratom safeguard system. According to the report, as of December 31, 2013, the safeguards were extended to 9,585 kg of HEU and 854,911 kg of plutonium as well as depleted and natural uranium, LEU, and thorium. These numbers include irradiated as well as unirraidated material.

By David Lowry, with Mycle Schneider

The UK Government has announced that it has struck an agreement with German and Swedish governments to take title to plutonium arising from the reprocessing at Sellafield and management at Dounreay respectively of spent nuclear fuel from the two nations.

In a written statement to the UK Parliament on 3 July 2014 by then energy minister Michael Fallon--who has since been promoted to become Defense Secretary--it was revealed that the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has agreed to the UK Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) taking ownership of about 800 kg of material previously owned by a Swedish utility, and about 140 kg of material previously owned by a German research organization. It was reported earlier this year that Sweden was seeking to transfer to the United Kingdom of 834 kg of plutonium.

As of 31 December 2013, the UK held around 123 tons of separated civil plutonium on its territory, of which 23.4 tons is foreign owned, according to the latest published government data.

In April 2013 DECC announced taking over 750 kg of plutonium belonging to German utilities, 1,850 kg previously loaned from France, and 350 kg from Dutch firm GKN. At the same time, 650 kg of plutonium stored at Sellafield was transferred from German to Japanese ownership. A similar deal with Germany in 2012 saw the UK take ownership of four tons of plutonium.

Mr Fallon said in his statement:

"These transactions, which have been agreed by the Euratom Supply Agency, will not result in any new plutonium being brought into the UK and will not therefore increase the overall amount of plutonium in the UK. We have agreed to these transactions as they offer a cost effective and beneficial arrangement, which: removes the need to transport separated plutonium, allows the UK to gain national control over more of the civil plutonium in the UK and enables an outstanding contract with a Swedish utility to be concluded.
In line with the DECC policy statement, the NDA continues to engage with other third parties regarding taking ownership of further overseas plutonium in the UK arising from overseas reprocessing contracts. As well as UK government approval, these transactions will require consent from the relevant overseas Governments and regulatory bodies, and thereafter EURATOM Supply Agency agreement, before any contracts are enacted."


In December 2011, DECC published its response to the consultation on Plutonium Management, which indicated that the UK Government's preferred option was to reuse the plutonium as MOX fuel, but that it would be open to consider alternative options if they offered better value to the UK taxpayer.

In addition, the UK Government said that overseas owners of plutonium stored in the UK could have that plutonium managed in line with UK plutonium, subject to commercial terms that are acceptable to the UK Government. Subject to compliance with inter-governmental agreements and acceptable commercial arrangements, the UK is prepared to take ownership of overseas plutonium stored in the UK as a result of which it would be treated in the same way as UK-owned plutonium. The Government stated that it "considers that there are advantages to having national control over more of the civil plutonium in the UK, as this gives us greater influence over how we ultimately manage it."

However, one way the UK government could manage the plutonium, is to remove at least some of it from safeguards, and provide it for any form of unsafeguarded (military) uses it wishes.

In a written Parliamentary answer on 10 July 2014, (Official Report : Column 412W) Minister Fallon assured Labour MP Paul Flynn: "There is no intention to withdraw from safeguards the plutonium recently allocated to the UK by Germany and Sweden." He explained that all civil nuclear material in the UK is subject to Euratom safeguards and the terms of the 1977 UK/Euratom/IAEA Voluntary Safeguards Agreement, including its Article 14. What he did not say was Article 14 permits the UK Government to withdraw unlimited quantities of nuclear materials from safeguards at any time.

Fallon did however add: "As part of the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, the Government announced that as a matter of policy future withdrawals of nuclear material from safeguards would be severely limited, and that the quantities of material involved would be orders of magnitude less than the amounts used to make nuclear weapons. "According to information provided by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), over the past decade 2004 to 2013, the UK withdrew small quantities of plutonium from safeguards on 53 occasions. According to the declarations, the material involved did not exceed gram quantities on each occasion and they were officially withdrawn from safeguards for use in instrument calibration, radiation detectors, analytical tracers or radiological shielding.

At this point in time, the question is not whether the UK intends to use foreign origin plutonium for military purposes, but rather that according to the existing tripartite agreement, the UK is free to withdraw any amount of material from safeguards any time. Once the UK has taken title to foreign plutonium, there will be no distinction between UK origin and foreign origin plutonium.

The UK has a history of withdrawing nuclear materials--mainly plutonium, enriched uranium and depleted uranium--from safeguards hundreds of times since 1978, when the tripartite voluntary safeguards agreement came into force. In the first announcement to Parliament in 1998, twenty years after the withdrawal option became activated, it was revealed that 591 withdrawals had been carried out over that period (Official Report, 29 July 1998 : Column: 358).

Information on nuclear material withdrawn from safeguards is available on the Office for Nuclear Regulation website.