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

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.

On 26 January 2015, Energoatom of Ukraine and Holtec International signed an updated agreement to build a dry spent fuel facility storage site in Ukraine. The construction is expected to be completed by 2020.

The project has a long history. Holtec International won the tender in 2004, but it was not until 2008 that Ukraine began changing the legislation to allow domestic storage of spent fuel. The approval to begin construction was received in September 2014 and in October 2014 Energoatom was reported to begin some activity on the site.

A report by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) provides evidence that Pakistan's forth plutonium production reactor in Khushab is now operational. Construction of the reactor was reported to begin in 2011. The third plutonium production reactor in Khushab began operations in 2013.

Each of the four reactors in Khushab is capable of producing of about 10 kg of weapon-grade plutonium a year. For a detailed analysis of Pakistan's fissile material production capabilities see IPFM's 2010 Global Fissile Material Report.

Shaun Burnie with Mycle Schneider

Two reports released in the past month raise further fundamental questions over the future of the CB&I AREVA Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) at the Savannah River Site (SRS).

A report from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), released in December 2014, provides cost estimates for the construction of the CB&I AREVA Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MFFF) at the Savannah River Site (SRS) could range from $8-12 billion "depending on the funding profiles," compared to the current public estimate of $7.7 billion (see also an earlier report about the projected cost increase). The cost for the MOX project was estimated at $1.1 billion in FY 2001 and was set at $2.7 billion at the time DoE signed a contract with AREVA in 2008. The report, entitled "Improving Project Management--Report of the Contract and Project Management Working Group", includes a section on the plutonium disposition MOX program as an example of the many of the problems with current DOE practice.

An independent report released on January 14, 2015, by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), details a number of feasible alternatives to the MOX plan, including evidence from a previously unreleased 2006 DOE study that, if adopted, would favor cheaper, safer alternatives.

The new DOE Report summarizes a catalogue of failures as the causes of the MOX project cost escalations. These include:

  • DOE did not conduct any peer reviews prior to developing the project baseline;
  • No analysis of France's reference plants' construction costs or operations history although it provided the basis of the U.S.-MOX program; or,
  • No rigorous technology development review, risk analysis or project definition rating was carried out.
The DOE report states: "DOE and the contractors relied on the fact that similar facilities, although built decades earlier and under different regulatory, political, and industry conditions, could easily be modified and replicated in the United States. Under the DOE orders at the time, there was no requirement that the project's cost estimate be performed by an independent party."

The DOE concludes that the design of the Shaw-AREVA MOX plant was "significantly less mature" than had been reported and that design costs continued to grow, construction and procurement bids greatly exceeded estimates.

In December 2014, the Senate approved limited funding for continued construction of the MOX plant, however its future remains uncertain. According to DOE, the MOX plant is 50% complete with $4 billion having been spent to date. As the report states: "In developing a path forward for plutonium disposition, DOE is reevaluating the options identified in the early stages of the plutonium disposition program."

A public hearing, organized by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in Aiken, South Carolina, on 15 January 2015, did not convince opponents of the MOX project. Savannah Rivers Site Watch stated: "Congressional appropriations for the MOX project is clearly not within the NRC's expertise or area of oversight. But, there are questions pertinent to the NRC concerning budget impacts. Given the reduced budget, have any safety-related jobs been eliminated or have construction activities been eliminated or modified which have safety impacts and are any short cuts being taken to avoid further delays to any project schedule (if such a schedule actually exists)?"

The UCS report, entitled "Excess Plutonium Disposition", provides details on how the DOE could resurrect an option considered years ago to utilize existing facilities at SRS to "immobilize" the plutonium in ceramic discs and condition them together with vitrified, highly radioactive waste -- waste converted into a glass form -- as a security barrier to theft. The DOE stopped pursuing this promising approach, called "can-in-canister," in 2002 to focus exclusively on MOX -- "a costly decision that has proved disastrous... In order for immobilization to be a viable option today, the DOE would have to invest heavily in its development to make up for lost time," says report author Ed Lyman. An even less expensive, quicker option than immobilization, the UCS report details, is downblending, which involves diluting the plutonium with an inert, nonradioactive material prior to final disposal. While DOE has employed this method to dilute some 100 kg of plutonium, most of which has not been disposed of yet, several metric tons of plutonium contained in larger amounts of waste have been disposed of in the so-called Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in a salt mine in New Mexico.

The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration announced removal of 36 kg of spent HEU fuel of a research reactor at the Institute of Nuclear Physics, in Alatau, near Almaty. The fuel was transferred in two air shipments to "a secure facility in Russia for permanent disposition", which is most likely the Mayak plant that will reprocess the fuel.

The fuel belonged to the VVR-K reactor operated by the Institute of Nuclear Physics. The reactor probably used 90% HEU fuel in 1967-1988 and was converted to 36% HEU fuel after a modernization that was completed in 1998. It has been undergoing conversion to LEU. It is possible that the removal of spent fuel mens that the conversion has been completed. [UPDATE 01/13/15: According to Kazakhstan's authorities, the conversion is not complete yet.] In September 2014 the NNSA worked with Kazakhstan, Russia, and IAEA to remove fresh fuel of the VVR-K critical assembly associated with the reactor.

According to NNSA, it "plans to work with Kazakhstan, Russia and the IAEA to return approximately 50 additional kilograms of HEU to Russia - thereby eliminating all HEU research reactor fuel from Kazakhstan." This would take removal of fuel of two HEU research reactors located at the National Nuclear Center of the Republic of Kazakhstan in Kurchatov. Kazakhstan has already been working with Russia to develop and test LEU fuel for the IVG.1M reactor. The prospects of converting the IGR pulse reactor were uncertain, as it would require development of a new fuel, but it appears that Kazakhstan has now made a commitment to either convert the IRG reactor or, more likely, to shut it down.

Tom Clements, the director of the Savannah River Site Watch, obtained an updated list of shipments of research reactor fuel to the United States that were carried out by the GTRI program and its predecessors. The list is current as of January 5, 2015. The updated list is identical to the one dated March 22, 2013 - apparently there were no transfers of HEU fuel of research reactors since the last transfer from Austria in December 2012. The GTRI program, however, was managing a number of fuel shipments from Soviet-origin reactors to Russia (the most recent shipment took place in September 2014 from Kazakhstan).

It is not clear why the list does not include the removal of material from Italy that was completed by March 2014. One possible explanation is that these shipments included so-called "gap material" that is normally outside of the GTRI scope. However, according to NNSA, that program was managed by GTRI.

Shaun Burnie with Mycle Schneider

On 13 December 2014, the U.S. Senate approved funding for continued construction of the MOX plant at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The 2015 Defense Authorization Act allocated US$345 million for fiscal 2015 (a reduction from the US$360 million in fiscal 2014) and requires the Department of Energy (DOE) to stop plans for putting the plant into 'cold standby'. In March 2014 President Obama had requested US$115 million for the coming year, to secure the existing site, but halt further construction while the DOE was to review options, including alternatives to the light water reactor MOX disposition route for 34 tons of "excess" weapons plutonium.

The Act requires the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to prepare and submit to both the House and Senate appropriations committees an independently-verified lifecycle cost estimate for the option to complete construction and operate the MOX facility and the option to down blend and dispose of the 34 tons of plutonium in a repository. The NNSA estimate is to be presented to Congress within 270 days.

The future of the CB&I AREVA MOX plant and plutonium disposition program remains in doubt following years of delays, escalating costs and attempts earlier this year by the administration to effectively terminate the program. In early 2014, a DOE assessment concluded that the total lifetime cost to 2040 would be more than US$34 billion. Efforts to oppose the White House downgrading of the program and secure construction funding in the 2015 budget were led by South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. However, the long standing MOX critic Tom Clements, director of SRS Watch, has stated that the funds allocated under the 2015 bill fall well short of what is required, noting the MOX program would need to receive $800 million or more per year for two decades to see the project completed and operating, including the cost of plant operation, administration, waste management, plutonium oxide preparation and payment to a nuclear utility to subsidize the use of MOX fuel in commercial power reactors.

In November 2014, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted Areva an extension of the construction license until 30 March 2025.

On December 23, 2014 the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission received an application for an export license XSOU8839 that would authorize the Y-12 National Security Complex to ship "134.2 kg uranium-235 contained in maximum of 144.0 kg of uranium, enriched to maximum 93.20 weight%, in the form of broken metal" to Areva's CERCA facility in France, where the material will be used to manufacture fuel for the Belgian BR2 reactor. The shipments are expected to take place in 2016.

The license notes that "[c]onversion of the BR2 reactor to use a LEU fuel is in progress." Indeed, in 2012 NRC approved a shipment of 22 kg of 20% LEU for use in irradiation experiments in the BR2 reactor.

Previously approved shipments of HEU for the BR2 reactor include 93.5 kg of HEU (87.3 kg of U-235) in July 2010, 85.5 kg of HEU (79.814 kg of U- 235) in 2006. It also used the 69 kg of HEU that was supplied in 2006 for the High Flux Reactor (Réacteur à Haut Flux, RHF) at the Institut Max von Laue-Paul Langevin (ILL) in Grenoble.

UPDATE: The license XSNM3755was issued on January 26, 2015.

China's experimental fast reactor, CFER, reached full power, 65 MWt, at 5.00pm on 15 December 2014 and operated at this level continuously for three full days.

The reactor, built with Russia's assistance, first reached criticality in July 2010 and was connected to the grid in July 2011. At this point CEFR operates with 64.4% enriched HEU fuel, supplied by Russia.