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

Presentation by the International Panel on Fissile Materials (presentation slides, audio recording)

Hosted by the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the UN and the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM)

Achieving nuclear disarmament, stopping nuclear proliferation, and preventing nuclear terrorism are among the most critical challenges facing the world today. A major new book, "Unmaking the Bomb" proposes a fresh approach to reaching these long-held goals.

Rather than considering them as separate issues, the authors--physicists and experts on nuclear security from Princeton University's Program on Science and Global Security and the International Panel on Fissile Materials--argue that all three of these goals can be understood and realized together if we focus on the production, stockpiling, and disposal of plutonium and highly enriched uranium--the fissile materials that are the key ingredients used to make nuclear weapons.

To mark the release of this new book, two of the authors will explain the scale and nature of the fissile materials challenge and outline proposed policies aimed at reducing and eventually ending the dangers these materials pose. These include an end to the production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium for weapons, an end to their use as military and civilian reactor fuels, and the verified elimination of all national stockpiles.


Frank von Hippel, Princeton University Program on Science and Global Security, and co-chair International Panel on Fissile Materials

Zia Mian, Princeton University Program on Science and Global Security, and co-deputy-chair International Panel on Fissile Materials

Opening Remarks
Amb. Henk Cor van der Kwast
Permanent Representative of the Netherlands to the Conference on Disarmament

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 Hebrew. Here is a direct link to pdf file:

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

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.

In its official submission to IAEA, INFCIRC/549/Add.1/17, Japan reported its plutonium holdings as of December 31, 2013. The INFCIRC/549 submission is based on the more detailed internal annual plutonium management report, made public in September 2014.

According to the INFCIRC/549 report, at the end of 2013 Japan had 4.4 (4.4 in 2012) tonnes of separated unirradiated plutonium at the reprocessing facilities, 2.9 (2.9) tonnes in fuel manufacturing process, and 3.1 (1.6) tonnes in unirradiated MOX fuel. Additional 0.4 tonnes of unirradiated plutonium is "held elsewhere."

In addition, Japan reported having 36.3 (34.9) tonnes of unirradiated plutonium outside of its territory.

Japan also declared 134 (133) tonnes of plutonium contained in spent fuel held at reactors sites and 27 (26) tonnes - in spent fuel at reprocessing facilities. Some material, less than 500 kg, is declared as held at other sites.

Shaun Burnie with Mycle Schneider

In what appears at first sight to be a historic decision, the Japan Atomic Energy Agency (JAEA) announced 29 September 2014 that it will permanently shut down the head-end of the Tokai-mura reprocessing plant in Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan. A decommissioning plan is to be developed as early as 2015.

The plant operated from 1981-2006 when it completed the reprocessing of commercial spent fuel. JAEA had proposed that the plant continue operation by "testing" reprocessing of high burn up fuel, Mixed Oxide fuel (MOX) and fuel from the shut down Fugen Advanced Thermal Reactor (ATR). However, the decision to close the plant was prompted by cost estimates in excess of Y100 billion ($915 million) that would be required to bring the plant into line with post Fukushima-Daiichi regulatory guidelines.

Though a decision has been made to shut down the plant, the processing of uranium and plutonium solutions which are currently in the plant, and vitrification of resulting high level wastes will continue for the next 20 years, according to the JAEA. The JAEA indicated that the controversial Recycle Equipment Test Facility (RETF) at Tokai-mura will be used to insert the vitrified waste into canisters for transportation to as yet undetermined final disposal site. The RETF was originally designed to reprocessing spent and blanket fuel from the Monju fast breeder reactor. Twenty years ago it was revealed that the U.S. Department of Energy had transferred sensitive nuclear technology (SNT) for use in the RETF, a transfer not permitted under the 1988 U.S. Japan Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation Agreement.

Japan's Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) annual plutonium report in September 2013, declared a total of 668 kg in plutonium nitrate solution at the Tokai-mura plant, and a total of 83 kg of separated plutonium oxide, as of December 2012. An additional 120 tons of spent fuel, including MOX fuel from Fugen, currently in storage at the site is likely to be shipped overseas for reprocessing according to JAEA (reported by World Nuclear News). While no details were provided, the leading candidate would likely be the AREVA plant at La Hague.

The Tokai-mura plant has reprocessed a total of about 1140 tons of spent fuel comprising 82 tons of uranium fuel and 29 tons of MOX fuel from the Fugen ATR, 644 tons of boiling water reactor fuel, 376 tons of pressurized water reactor fuel and 9 tons of fuel from the Japan Power Demonstration Reactor (JPDR). With the closure of Tokai, the option exists for reprocessing of future Monju fast breeder reactor spent fuel in the small scale Chemical Reprocessing Facility (CRF). The throughput capacity of the CRF remains unclear though.

Operation of Japan's nuclear fuel chain facilities, including the processing of solutions and vitrification at the Tokai reprocessing plant, remain suspended pending compliance with Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) post-Fukushima Guidelines. As of 3 October 2014, JAEA had yet to submit an application to the NRA for review of the Tokai plant.

The decision to operate the Tokai-mura reprocessing plant was one of the most controversial issues in post war U.S.-Japan diplomatic relations. The Carter administration opposed Tokai-mura on nuclear non-proliferation grounds; at the time the United States was the major supplier of nuclear technology and fuel to Japan. Under the bilateral 1968 Agreement of Cooperation Concerning Civil Uses of Atomic Energy the U.S. held a veto right over reprocessing in Japan. The plant was designed by Saint Gobain Nucléaire (SGN), a subsidiary of COGEMA (now AREVA NC). In 2013, SGN was absorbed into the AREVA group. The non-proliferation argument was rejected by successive Japanese governments through the 1970s. The government of Prime Minister Fukuda described the operation of the plant as a "life or death" issue for Japan; and the U.S. State Department considered that failure to reach agreement would have profoundly adverse effects on bilateral relations. The Carter administration finally abandoned its opposition and the first testing of fuel began in 1977. The acceptable compromise involved limiting reprocessing to an initial batch of 70 tons, and testing co-processing techniques. In the end the Tokai plant, which had an original design throughput of 210 tons, reprocessed on average 42 tons of spent fuel each year.

Tokai-mura became known worldwide in 1999, when a criticality accident occurred at the JCO fuel fabrication facility, that led to two fatalities, radiation exposure to over 600 workers and members of the public and a significant traumatization of the local population. The announcement of the close of the Tokai-mura reprocessing head-end comes one day prior to the 15th anniversary of the 1999 accident. Former Tokai-mura mayor Tatsuya Murakami stated at a public meeting gathering of 350 people that "Japan was caught in a 'safety myth' that a serious nuclear accident would not happen in this country when the criticality accident occurred".

Earlier in September 2014, it was reported that Japan Nuclear Fuel Limited (JNFL) would likely postpone commercial operation of the Rokkasho-mura reprocessing plant for 18 months.

In its annual civilian plutonium declaration, published by IAEA as a document INFCIRC/549/Add.6/17, the United States reported no changes in its stock of separated civilian plutonium in 2013. As of December 31, 2013, the United States reported having 49.0 tonnes of separated plutonium. Of this amount, 44.4 tonnes are described as "held elsewhere", 4.6 tonnes - in unirradiated MOX fuel, and less than 0.05 tonnes - held in the fuel fabrication process. None of these numbers has changes since the 2012 declaration.

The amount reported by the United States in its INFCIRC/549 declaration is part of the 61.5 tonnes plutonium that the United States declared excess to its national security needs. Some of this material is still stored in weapons and weapon components.

In its annual account of civilian plutonium stock - INFCIRC/549/Add.9/16 - Russia reported a moderate increase in the amount of separated plutonium. According to the declaration, as of the end of 2013 Russia owned 51.9 tonnes of unirradiated separated plutonium, of which 1.2 tonnes more than was declared in 2012.

Of this amount, 50,300 kg is stored at the reprocessing plant, an increase of 1,100 kg over the 2012 amount (49,200 kg). Other reported amounts of separated plutonium are: 400 kg is in unirradiated MOX fuel held at reactor sites and elsewhere (300 kg in 2012), and 1,200 kg (1,200 kg in 2012) is "held elsewhere." Of the total amount of 51.9 tonnes, 0.3 kg of plutonium belongs to "foreign bodies". Also, Russia owns 0.6 kg of plutonium that is "held in locations in other countries". This amount is not included in the total.

In addition, Russia has 79,000 kg (77,500 kg in 2012) of plutonium in spent fuel that is stored at reactor sites, 4,500 kg (4,500 kg) - in spent fuel that is awaiting reprocessing at the reprocessing plant, and 53,500 kg (56,500 kg) - in spent fuel "held elsewhere". Overall, Russia had 140.0 (135.5) tonnes of plutonium still in spent fuel as of December 31, 2013, up 4.5 tonnes from December 2012.

Rosatom and the U.S. Department of Energy held a meeting to discuss conversion of Russian research reactors to low-enriched uranium. The meeting took place on October 2, 2014 in Tomsk Polytechnic Institute, which operates IRT-T reactor. The reactor was among the two for which the feasibility study was completed in 2012 (the total of six reactors were studied). The Untied States and Russia confirmed their commitment to the reactor conversion program in June 2013.

The meeting in Tomsk has a special importance as it comes at the time of tensions between the United States and Russia that followed the political crisis in Ukraine. It was reported earlier that the DoE suspended all contacts with its partners in Russia. The joint work, however, apparently continues - in September 2014 the GTRI program removed HEU spent fuel from Poland to Russia. The meeting in Tomsk further indicates that the work on reactor conversion continues as well.

The U.S. Department of Energy is preparing to restart the Transient Reactor Test Facility at the Idaho National Laboratory, more commonly known as TREAT. The pulsed reactor, built in 1959, has not operated since 1994. It is expected that the facility will become operational in 2018.

The TREAT reactor is one of the few research facilities in the United States that use HEU fuel. The reactor core contains about 20 kg of U3O8 in graphite matrix with uranium enriched to 93.1% U-235. Department of Energy has studied the feasibility of converting TREAT to LEU fuel, but it is not clear whether the conversion will be completed by 2018.

According to an IAEA report, on 29 September 2014 Kazakhstan removed fresh HEU fuel of the VVR-K critical assembly to Russia. The shipment included 10.2 kg of uranium. The fuel was transported by air and appears to have been taken to the NPO Luch in Russia. The project is part of the U.S. Global Threat Reduction Initiative.

The VVR-K critical assembly is associated with the VVR-K research reactor, operated by the Institute of Nuclear Physics, near Almaty. The reactor is using 36% HEU fuel and is currently undergoing conversion to LEU. The critical assembly was converted to LEU in 2012.

In his statement at the 2014 IAEA General Conference, U.S. Secretary of Energy said that the United States "just completed another shipment of HEU from Poland in cooperation with our Russian counterparts, making Poland one step closer to being HEU free."

Although no details of the shipment are available at the moment, the material in question is most certainly the spent fuel of the Maria research reactor. The reactor used 36% HEU fuel supplied by Russia, but it was converted to LEU in 2012. Some spent fuel containing HEU was removed in September 2012 and in 2010 (there were shipments of fresh fuel as well - in 2012, in August 2007, and August 2006). The removal of spent HEU fuel is expected to be completed in 2017.

Although the reactor has been converted to LEU fuel, it is producing medical isotopes with HEU targets. The material for targets is supplied by the United States.

UPDATE: The fuel was delivered to Russia by a cargo ship Mikhail Dudin operated by Atomflot. On September 29, 2014 Atomflot reported that all fuel has been transferred from the ship to railroad cars to be transported to the reprocessing plant.